Virtue vs. Virtual

The 1980s was a great time for motivational posters. One said: “If you don’t like the world the way it is, change it.” Nowadays, besides passivity or advocacy, there’s a third option: ignore it. That’s what the world decides to do in Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s new film based on the bestselling novel by Ernest Cline. When you can escape into virtual reality for hours on end, why try to change what’s actually happening?

Cline co-wrote the film with Zac Penn, who’s done the story for several Marvel Universe films. Half of the film’s set in a dystopian Cleveland that’s become the fastest growing city in the world. Because of lack of space, part of the city has mobile homes, RVs, and old custom vans stacked on scaffolding five or six levels high – no surprise the area’s known as The Stacks. It’s a bleak world, but almost all the residents spend their days in “The Oasis,” a virtual reality universe where you can do anything or be anyone.

In the real world, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a teenaged orphan living with his aunt and her current loser boyfriend in the Stacks. His father had chosen his name because it sounded like a superhero’s name, like Peter Parker or Clark Kent. That hasn’t worked out in the real world, but when Wade enters the Oasis, he becomes Parzival, a variation on Percival, the Knight in Arthurian lore who recovers the Holy Grail. There is a holy grail built into the Oasis by its creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). After Halliday passed away, a recording he made revealed that there were three challenges hidden in the Oasis that would lead to the biggest Easter egg ever – control of the Oasis and Halliday’s fortune of a half-trillion dollars. The first challenge has been found – an insane road race that includes wrecking balls, a tyrannosaurus, and King Kong – but no one has yet conquered it.

Along with the regular avatars competing, there’s a large contingent in every race from IOI Corporation, another virtual reality company that wants to take over the Oasis. The head of IOI, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), was an associate of Halliday’s early in his career and parlayed that connection to become IOI’s director. Many of the other players have formed groups, but Parzival has resisted. He does have three friends – the tech geek Aech (Lena Waithe) who can fix anything, and the brothers Daito and Shoto (Win Morisaki and Philip Zhao) – and he’s drawn to another player, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), whose skills match his. But Sorrento’s set two subordinates on Parzival’s trail: in the real world, F’Nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen), head of IOI’s security, and in the Oasis, I-Rok (T.J. Miller), a bounty hunter whose chest is a huge skull.

Halliday, who grew up in the 1980s at the beginning of the electronic gaming, has filled the Oasis with 1980s cultural references, and there’s probably no better director today to bring that world to life than Spielberg. Interestingly, though, he eschewed any references to his impact on that era, so you see no bicycle flying across the moon – except at the beginning since Spielberg produced the film through Amblin’ Entertainment. The closest the references come to Spielberg is Parzival driving Doc Brown’s DeLorean from Back to the Future, a movie Spielberg executive produced. While another director might have dwelt on the nostalgia element, Spielberg keeps the focus on the story. Particularly outstanding is when Parzival and his group get to the second challenge, which is located in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. It both maintains the creepy horror of that movie but blends it with the challenge.

It’s particularly fun when the real person behind the avatar within Parzival’s team is revealed later in the movie. Rylance’s performance stands out as he makes Halliday an idiot savant in his game world, yet also imbues him with a deep and abiding humanity. Between his turn as Daggett, the businessman who works with Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, and his performance as Orson Krennic in Rogue One, Ben Mendelsohn has become the go-to actor when you need a heavy. (He’s recently completed the new version of Robin Hood, playing the Sheriff of Nottingham.) His Sorrento is both ruthless but flawed, but dangerous all the way through. The film also features a small but important role for Simon Pegg.

Watching the trailers on a smaller screen, along with screen shots from the film, I was concerned some scenes in the Oasis wouldn’t be watchable because of the dark cinematography. However, Spielberg’s long-time director of photography, Janusz Kaminski, has created gorgeous imagery on the big screen. The computer graphics are outstanding, so you feel immersed in the Oasis. Spielberg balances this beautifully with the vision of the real world. The one complaint I have with the movie is it takes almost twenty minutes to wrap up the story, and the energy does lag at that time.

In the end, rather than the motivational phrase I noted at the beginning, Ready Player One embraces a stanza from Prince’s song Let’s Go Crazy: “If you don’t like the world you’re living in, take a look around you, at least you got friends.”

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