Reviewed by Zack Evans
Cyberpunk has been with us for quite some time, but it has never quite gone mainstream. Whilst Philip K Dick has been embedded in sci-fi film culture for decades, surprisingly few of the other big names (Sterling, Stephenson, Noon…) have made it directly into the medium, except Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic, and his Pattern Recognition is stuck in Dev Hell. Instead, cyberpunk has diffused through geek culture in general, and from there leaked into screenplays through influence on, well, everyone.
80s film culture is equally pervasive, and the book Ready Player One finally provided a bridge from geek to popular, through an outrageous mix of the two – and if you need someone to do something outrageously popular with culture, director Spielberg is your man.
Our protagonist (not that one!) Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in a trailer park with his dysfunctional not-quite-family, and deals with this by escaping into the virtual world of OASIS, created by James Halliday. Sheridan provides excellent empathy, with just the right amount of Keanu in his virtual self “Parzival,” and just enough Ferris in his real-world self.
Halliday left an “Easter egg” in OASIS. There is a worldwide multi-player game with the ultimate prize: ownership of the whole shooting match. The corporation, the virtual world itself, and a way out of the trailer park for Watts. Understandably, the game is popular. The game involves the acquisition of three keys which can be found by unravelling cryptic clues and then completing the quest that is revealed. All the quests are well thought out, but in particular the brilliant sequence set within a well-known 80s horror film will now be the reference example of reference porn. And there is a lot of that.
Parzival has friends in OASIS he has not met in real life, played by a believable ensemble cast, and early in the film he meets fellow gamer Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). Unusually, the film stays with all of these characters throughout, with a tidy wrap-up.
Halliday is dead, but appears in the film a great deal in his own archives, where he has left all the clues for the questors. (The “archives” are clearly a franchise under license from the Library in Snow Crash – the Curator is excellent. See photo.) Mark Rylance plays Halliday as a pitch-perfect caricature of a geek god, reminiscent of ESR (in the establishing shot he is seen picking at his fingernails) or Bill Gates. Simon Pegg, as business partner Ogden Morrow, does not seem fully bought in to the film and lets things down slightly.
Meanwhile, the obligatory evolutionary bad-ass, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) has his own ideas about what OASIS is for and who should benefit, and has diverted a considerable part of his business empire into ensuring these plans do not include the intrepid ensemble. In another neat twist, Sorrento is first bypassed rather than defeated – at least until they have to do it all over again in the other world.
There is a lot of popular culture in the film, but it’s so well woven with the storytelling and the cyberpunk conceits that it really doesn’t stray into overdone, and if the idea for an homage came before the rest of the scene was back-written, it never shows.
The astonishing thing about Ready Player One is that there are so few new ideas in it, but the ideas are built into the story and the story is built into the two worlds so thoroughly that you can hardly see the join – and it all just works. Watch it for the references or watch it for the good old fashioned Spielberg romp, but watch it.