Part of the fun of this film is enjoying the many references to the ’80s—the era that saw the birth of video games and the personal computer, a string of hit movies from directors (e.g. John Hughes and Steven Spielberg), and music videos seen on a new television channel called MTV. (The film’s soundtrack opens with Van Halen’s “Jump,” a signature ’80s tune if there ever was one.) Although director Spielberg is careful not to allude to his own movies, Ready Player One references plenty of other films, video games, music, and characters from that era. What Spielberg does do is reprise a type of movie he made in the ’80s, the type that is about adventure and thrills for the young and young at heart—a Raiders of the Lost Ark, rather than a Lincoln or The Post. We see young heroes and heroines on a perilous quest that features a puzzle to be solved, exciting action, humor, camaraderie, and loads of CGI that creates an immersive virtual-reality universe. This is a film that can really be enjoyed in 3-D format.
Based on the book by Ernest Cline, the story takes place in 2045 when people escape their drab, depressing, trashed, polluted, and overcrowded environment for the freedom and glory of playing in a virtual reality world called the OASIS. Wade (Tye Sheridan of Mud, X-Men: Apocalypse) and his teenaged friends seek fun and excitement in this alternate universe as avatars who are handsome and/or all-powerful—i.e., nothing like their real-world selves. When OASIS founder Halliday (Mark Rylance of Bridge of Spies, Wolf Hall) announces via a video after his death that he has created the ultimate treasure hunt with clues hidden in the OASIS, Wade and his friends team up to win the grand prize, which is nothing less than ownership and control of the OASIS, something that offers freedom and riches beyond their dreams. However, also gunning for this prize—literally and figuratively—is an all-powerful corporation headed by its ruthless CEO, Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn of Rogue One, Bloodline, The Darkest Hour).
When Wade first encounters the feisty, fearless Samantha, she is at first his rival, then becomes a love-interest and co-leader who joins Wade and his friends to hunt down clues in the OASIS, encountering more and more danger as they progress. For the audience, experiencing the film is like being inside a fantastical 3-D video game—exactly the experience Spielberg is aiming for—although the film’s action takes place in both the real world and the virtual one, with thrills and danger in both. As we experience Wade and company in both these universes, we gain an understanding, as do they, that it’s character—who you are on the inside, and connections—who your friends and loved ones are, that matter most . . . which means that reality trumps virtual reality in the end.
Despite the ’80s allusions and classic sense of adventure, this film by Spielberg (who personally enjoys virtual-reality technology at home) is very contemporary, blending past and future into a millennial’s Now. For maximum entertainment, see this film on a big screen . . . and splurge for 3-D if you can.