Chris Price reviews Spielberg’s engaging, but flawed, virtual reality romp. Schlinder’s List this is not.
In the virtual world of the OASIS you can be whoever and whatever you want to be. A huge warrior of the opposite sex or a street fighting, martial arts expert. Hey, you could even be a meerkat or a tortoise if you want to be – though these seem less popular options.
The point being that the real world is so grim and so overpopulated that large cities where people live in precarious, high rise trailer parks getting drone deliveries from Pizza Hut (great bit of product placement, guys) have sprung up all over the US. Who wouldn’t want to escape from that, except the drone delivered pizzas which sound rather cool?
So it is perhaps rather convenient that the lead characters in this Steven Spielberg epic choose avatars that aren’t actually that dissimilar from their real world personas: Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) a somewhat geeky, computer loving kid who lives with his Aunt and her string of abusive boyfriends and Sam (Olivia Cooke), a determined young woman on a mission to overthrow the evil IOI empire (more of that later).
Based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 best seller – no I’d never heard of it either – Ready Player One is essentially a fantasy romp set in the year 2045. The eccentric co-creator of the OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), has died leaving behind a series of clues to inherit his multi trillion-dollar VR company. It’s all a bit Charlie and the Chocolate Factory if I’m being totally honest.
All you have to do is find the three keys and it’s all yours, along with a Golden Egg (well it is Easter after all). Sounds easy? Well of course it’s not. Wade is a James Halliday obsessive and knows everything about the creator’s life, including his obsession with 80s culture. Favourite song? Buggles’ Video Killed The Radio Star. Favourite band? Duran Duran. Favourite film? The Breakfast Club. You get the idea.
By himself, Wade – or rather his more daring, better looking avatar Parzival – manages to unlock the first clue by going back through clips of Halliday’s life and realising that if he’s to win the first race he needs to drive very fast backwards towards his finishing line, avoiding dinosaurs and King Kong along the way, as you do.
However, it’s only when he officially teams up with Samantha’s avatar, Art3mis, and a few of his mis-fit friends that Parzival really begins to achieve success. Not that it’s ever straightforward you understand. Standing in his way is the evil IOI empire which just like Parzival and his gang is also hell-bent of taking control of the OASIS – but with very different motives.
Under the leadership of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who it turns out used to work for Halliday, IOI puts its massive resources into winning the keys for its own evil gains and destroying any opposition both in the virtual world and in the real world in the process.
Firstly, through a series of attacks on the property where Watts/Parzival lives and then on the van where his gang strap on their VR gear to fight the baddies. If it’s all sounding a bit Scooby Do that’s because it is.
And this for me is where the problem lies. Sure Ready Player One is for the most part actually very watchable. Despite a running time of 2hrs and 20 minutes, it does manage to keep you engaged right up until the last 15 minutes or so when it all seems to become a bit silly (I’m still not really sure of the relevance of Ogden Morrow, Halliday’s co-creator played by Simon Pegg).
The fact that it’s laced with lots of 80s cultural references is also going to help it to appeal to an older generation while the topic of living in the virtual world versus the real world is an interesting one (although it feels like we’ve been here before a few years back with Second Life). But I think as a film it’s not entirely successful. For me, many of the real world scenes, especially towards the end, simply don’t seem very believable. No matter how many Renault Twizys you feature it still doesn’t feel like 2045.
As for the central relationship between Parzival/Wade and Art3mis/Sam, as well as the message that we should all spend a bit more time in the real rather than virtual world, it all just feels rather schmaltzy and over sentimentalised.
In the virtual world of the OASIS you can be whatever you want to be, but ultimately it’s best if you are a nice normal couple who can spend time having a kiss and a cuddle on the sofa and just pop into the virtual world for a bit of escapism now and then. Just not on Tuesday and Thursdays as the OASIS is now shut on those days!
Ready Player One is in cinemas from today.