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Friday, March 30, 2018

Ready Player One

Ready Player One is easily the most exuberant and joyful movie that Steven Spielberg has made in a very long time.  It's the kind of movie you imagine he made with a big grin on his face.  It's also the kind of movie that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, as seemingly every inch is filled with some kind of action or image.  And yet, the movie never reached the point of overkill with me.  The film may be stuffed to the gills, but it never seems to lose its certain innocence and charm, and it never becomes soulless.

What Spielberg has done is basically make the ultimate video game movie.  But rather than base it on an existing game or franchise, he has created a CG virtual world made up of just about every gaming, cinematic and comic book pop culture trope of the last 40 years.  This virtual world is known as the OASIS, and it serves as an escape from the dystopian future of 2045, which seems to largely be made out of ramshackle communities made up out of scrap iron and trailers.  An 18-year-old orphan named Wade Watts (Ty Sheridan) escapes from his drab reality every chance he gets by plugging into the OASIS, as does pretty much everyone in this futuristic society.  It's a virtual reality where players can live out their greatest fantasies, and be whoever they want to be.  You can climb Mount Everest with Batman, you can race down city streets in the Back to the Future DeLorean, having to dodge not just the other racers, but also King Kong and a T-Rex who are roaming the city, and you can even fly and dance on air if you choose.

The OASIS was originally envisioned in the 2011 novel by Ernest Cline (he co-wrote the screenplay), but Spielberg and his team of animators and special effects artists have created their own vision, and it's one of the most captivating sights you're ever to see in the movies.  There is always something to look at in this movie, such it's the numerous characters pulled out of pop culture that ranges from everything from Looney Tunes to infamous horror slashers like Freddy Krueger and the Chucky doll.  I was reminded many times of watching 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit for the first time when I was 11, and the thrill of getting to see Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse share the screen for the first time.  This is perhaps a more impressive feat, as the movie doesn't just cross multiple examples of a single genre like classic cartoons, but rather various forms of media like video games and anime.  There are so many visual surprises, it would be a crime to list them all.  All I will say is that this movie will probably require multiple viewings just to pick up on it all.

Whenever Wade enters the OASIS, he becomes his avatar Parzival, an original CG creation who looks like he walked out of one of the Final Fantasy games.  Wade and his friends in this virtual world have devoted their time to trying to solve a puzzle left behind by the OASIS' original creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), an awkward scientific genius who died years ago, but not before leaving behind one final message for the players.  Before he died, he hid a secret "Easter Egg" within the game, which can only be unlocked by completing three separate challenges.  Whoever completes the challenges earns three multi-colored keys that can open the door that leads to the grand prize - Complete control of the OASIS, and ownership of his trillion-dollar digital empire.  Many of the players within the virtual world have given up on cracking Halliday's cryptic clues, and just live out their fantasies.  But Wade and a fellow adventurous girl that he meets within the OASIS who calls herself Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) are determined to solve the mystery, and know that the answer must lie somewhere within the creator's past.

As Wade and his friends obsessively comb through every piece of information they can find on Halliday, there is a threat afoot which may impact not just the virtual world of the OASIS, but also the real world.  A shadowy tech organization led by the slimy Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) want to control the OASIS for their own means, and have started enslaving people to play the game nonstop for him in order to track down the clues Halliday left behind in order to find the three colored keys.  The way that the evil corporation is slowly taking over both the real and virtual world at the same time not only gives the movie some extra weight, but allows Spielberg the opportunity to create two unique worlds.  While the movie spends most of its time in the OASIS, it never lets us forget that there are real people behind these CG characters who make up a majority of the cast.  I particularly liked the way that the movie allows certain things that happen within the game to impact the player, such as when a character is shot within the OASIS, the player feels a brief surge of pain.

Ready Player One is a go for broke movie.  It doesn't seem to care if its plot is slight, or if the action is so chaotic and fast-paced that it often feels like even the movie is trying to keep up with itself at times.  And yet, what makes it work is the tone that Spielberg brings to everything.  He loves this stuff, and combining all of these elements into one story has opened his imagination.  I found myself getting caught up in the fun as much as he clearly was while he was making it.  There is a joy and innocence here that we do not often see in a lot of current big budget blockbusters.  This movie is as much about finding the fun in the idea of an army of pop culture icons trying to take down a giant MechaGodzilla as it is showing us the battle.  Most filmmakers would simply show us this image, and say 'Isn't this cool?".  Spielberg goes one step further, and goes right for the childhood joy that such an image would create.

I am sure that there will be many who complain that the movie is an empty spectacle.  Strip away all the flash and substance, and there's just nothing there.  They may be right to a point, but isn't the whole point of spectacle to amaze and show you things you haven't seen before?  Yes, it's great when a big movie like this can make you feel for the characters as much as you admire the effects that cost millions of dollars to create.  But, sometimes, a spectacle just has to be a spectacle.  This is a movie that does not get bogged down in complexities or drama.  It's a rush of a movie, and on that basic kinetic level, I enjoyed it immensely.  Sometimes I need a rush when i go to the movies, just like sometimes I need to think.  As the film played out, it never really bothered me that the movie had very little to actually say.  Sure, I noticed it, but I was still enjoying myself.

Ready Player One was clearly an outlet for Spielberg to just let go and have a lot of fun, and I think the movie succeeds at carrying that simple desire onto its audience.  It's fast-paced, never misses a beat, and has been made with a great amount of respect for the pop culture it represents.  If all high-tech movies were this much fun, the Hollywood landscape would be a much brighter place.

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