Steven Spielberg may have invented the definition of the “chewing gum” movie. You watch it, and it sticks to your shoe. That might be a very strange way of putting it, but there have been movies over the years I have at first just enjoyed or really admired but realized over time how much better they really are for how much I’ve thought about them. This is one of those movies, a film I saw in theatres with my uncle, not knowing anything about. I enjoyed myself, gave it a B+ on my old website, and moved on. But then a little while later my local mall ended up opening a virtual reality arcade called Ctrl V. My friend ended up taking me and another to the place one day, and I couldn’t believe my eyes nor the view of my hands and body gone complete overhaul. Now after seeing all the true potential of VR that could come in the next few years and this movie being a guess of how it will play out, I now see this movie anew. It is, by all accounts real and invented, a masterpiece.
Taking place in the year 2045, the world’s gotten really lousy. People are poor, starving, and it is really hard to find honest work. Our hero, Wade Watts, lives in this place in Columbus, Ohio called The Stacks, where there are dozens of trailer parks stacked on top of each other to make room for as many houses for those in poverty as possible. Wade was named as he is because his parents thought it resembled a superhero name, “like Peter Parker or Bruce Banner”. They both died when he was young, not making it through the disasters of the world that caused people to lose hope in fixing it and began to just try to endure it. And they’ve found a place of escape, because as our world’s gotten worse, our experimentation of technology has gotten better, because that’s what everyone’s paying attention to and cares about. “People come to the Oasis (the virtual reality world invented by James Halliday in 2025) because of all the things they can do,” Wade explains, “but they stay for all the things they can be.” Wade’s name in the Oasis is Parzival, as in the first person to find the Holy Grail.
Well, this “Parzival” ends up in hot water he thought he wanted to always be in, when he finds out a secret to getting the first key in a competition that has been going on for five years, ever since Halliday died. He created a contest where whoever found three keys, which could be found using hints Halliday has left, relating to his interests and memories, would get what they in the business call an Easter Egg. And whoever got to it would end up owning Gregarious Games, the company that created the Oasis, and inherit his fortune of “half a million dol-no, half a trillion dollars.” Parzival is best friends with the muscular, hilarious, adorable Aech, my favourite of the High Five, a group that consists of the two of them, and Art3mis, Parzival’s love interest when they help each other out in a deadly race, plus their friends Daito and Sho. I’m leaving out who plays these characters in the real world to avoid spoilers. The High Five have never met each other in real life, but they might have to when Parzival gets the first key after years of hunting, and IOI (Innovative Online Industries, the second largest company in the world, owned by Nolan Sorrento, played by Ben Mendelsohn) ends up out to get them. They will do everything, EVERYthing in their infinite power, to stop a group of teenage nerds from inheriting the biggest company on Earth and destroying their dream of cluttering it up with ads and extra-revenue strategies. Aech and Parzival’s favourite motto is “First to the key, first to the egg”, and now that’s a phrase everyone is taking seriously.
Here’s something about entertainment criticism you probably know already in the back of your head; when you give a grade, one of the main determining factors is if you enjoyed yourself, or if you feel it did what it set out to do. And whether or not you enjoy something comes mostly from your own experiences and feelings. In other words, sometimes a movie or television show you will love because it spoke to specifically you. And that ended up being Ready, Player, One for me. There’s two flaws in the movie I will point out now. In the first challenge, I found it a little hard to believe the twist Wade finds out was all it took. I understand some may have been hesitant to dare try it, because in the Oasis, dying, or zeroing out, means losing real money, but when IOI has as much money as they do, it wouldn’t have been a crazy experiment for them. There should’ve been something different or extra in that secret. Also, near the end, a character ends up having a change of heart or hesitation upon shooting a character with a gun, and I didn’t really believe the action. Everything else, and I do mean everything, is nothing short of spectacular. Extra criticisms I used to have which lowered my grade to a B+ involved there being sometimes so much to look at that it was exhausting, especially in the light-speed fast-paced opening. But I don’t feel that way anymore.
Before I go any further, I just finished the book. I kept hearing from lovers and haters of this film alike that the book is very different, and I realized as I was preparing an updated review that maybe some of the story elements I love were Ernest Cline’s ideas, not Steven Spielberg’s. So I’m also going to write a book review shortly. ANYways, here’s Step 1 of why Spielberg’s and Cline’s virtual reality dystopia spoke to me. For one thing, like all little kids, I dreamed of the power to fly like a bird when I was little. And I still get dreams like that. When I tried out the Oculus (AFTER I saw the movie for the first time) I did end up flying, on Richie’s Plank Experience. (Don’t try the Horror level, though. It’ll feel like getting eaten alive.) The characters in the Oasis are capable of incredible things, and can be whoever they want to be. Their dreams can end up a reality, so in the future maybe our dreams can too. Maybe in a virtual reality invented today, that’s possible right now. That concept speaks volumes to me, which dives into Step 2. I completely bought this universe. A world of famine and poverty where people stopped trying to fix the world’s problems and just try to outlive them, needing a place like the Oasis to escape to, is 100% believable. Everyone who has a flicker of sense should be nervous for all the dangers science is telling us about climate change, and yet polluting is so accustomed to our conveniences as humans, and oil companies have so much influence, that it’s hard to see us banding together to fight it the way it needs to be. This foretold world is one I can see happening.
And it wasn’t just the world I bought. It was the story, and that leaves me to Step 3. The battle of Wade and his online friends against a billionaire corporation with “loyalty centres” where you can’t leave unless you pay off a debt impossibly, and who want to turn the Oasis into a place full of advertisements and pricey fees, and are willing to kill and cover up, only for the possibility of huge coin? Not only believable, but epically scary and fast-paced. I realize now a fair bit of that is in the book too, but I like this movie more than its book counterpart. A little. Both were awesome. Main takeaway is this is an adolescent-save-the-world story, and it breathes completely new life into the genre.
Here’s what is different than in the book which the movie improves on: The High Five (Parzival, Art3mis, Aech, Daito and Sho, if you don’t remember) end up having to meet up in the real world to protect themselves from IOI and work together. It wasn’t quite like that in the book. Not only that, Art3mis tells us how her dad was sent to a loyalty centre, couldn’t leave when he got sick, and died. Plus she is actually part of a rebellion against IOI, hidden away in some seemingly abandoned buildings, probably housing fugitives, growing their own food. Art3mis is also famous for playthroughs and Twitch streams, and I got the impression she used whatever income she made from them to fund her cause. I think this was a better idea than in the book, where Wade doesn’t meet his friends in the real world until much later and most of that was different. In the book, they all treated each other mostly like competitors, but I like that here they care more about saving the Oasis from IOI than getting the gold medal instead of silver. Plus iR0k, an avatar who looks like a cross between Shrek and the Crystal Skull, has a bigger presence and is so hilarious I could feel blood vessels bursting in my veins when he talked. He took some otherwise general scenes with Sorrento and made them goldmines.
And I haven’t even gotten to the nostalgia of the 80’s. I consider myself a big fan of stuff from the somewhat far past, and it’s clear Spielberg loves it as well. The soundtrack consists of I Hate Myself For Loving You by Joan Jett, Jump by Van Halen, Stayin Alive by Saturday Night Fever and You Make My Dreams by Daryl Hall and John Oates, and more. There are also an infinite number of references, even the live-action Ninja Turtles from the 2014 and 2016 movies, which are, in my opinion, underrated gems, especially the second one. There’s also Akira, Back to the Future, The Iron Giant, Godzilla, Looney Tunes, The Shining (especially) and even some old Tootsie Pop commercial that’s either before my time, after my time, or doesn’t exist yet. What’s so amazing about this is the real world of entertainment is not keen on sharing. Robert Zemeckis went through hell to get Disney and Warner Bros. to collaborate on Roger Rabbit. Steven Spielberg used his reputation to get countless rights for these Easter Eggs of their own in this movie, and since there are so few directors with that sort of trust, let alone those willing to go the extra thousand miles for these, it might be fair assuming there won’t be another movie like this for a long time.
Last but certainly not least, the movie has a message about the value of life that ends up antagonizing virtual reality a little bit, a very brave move. The book has this too but the movie makes this much clearer. It basically says to all of us obsessed with technology that as amazing and loving to our specific needs as it is, we should spend more time looking at the real world around us, “because like Halliday said, reality is the only thing, that’s real.” So many directors wouldn’t have put that statement in, instead finishing the movie on a note with the crew playing more games, showing potential for a franchise, or have some kind of advertisement for a big game some company that sponsored this film was making. Giving this message instead basically takes all the splendor cooked up in this film and decreases its value. But that was the perfect call, because it’s true. We can make friends online, we can be different people online, but what’s even more special are the bonds you can make being who you are, and the bonds with those you can reach out and touch.
Ready Player One is an outstanding movie, the most fun Spielberg has been since The Adventures of Tintin and showing on such a grand scale how teenagers are the rulers of the future. And even more importantly, nerds are really cool.
If you like this, I’d try all the movies, television shows and video games referenced in it. Clearly Cline and Spielberg saw something in them.