Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, and Ben Mendelsohn
Director: Steven Spielberg
138 minutes (12) 2018
Warner Blu-ray region B
Review by Steven Hampton
Almost anything goes in this prime example of blockbuster fan-fiction that’s an effective play-list medley of pop culture favourites, especially movies. For its details, Ready Player One gleefully plunders many genre classics, so that the young hero Parzival’s car is from Back To The Future, a T-Rex guest-star is the same dinosaur from director Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park, and a magic spell is borrowed word-for-word from John Boorman’s Excalibur. But this is not a movie about movies, it’s about games and a possible futurism for gamer culture.
Turning the island of Manhattan into a shape-shifting arena, the first big game is a kind of Tron meets Death Race, loaded with so many effects in a multi-level dreamscape that the affects of Inceptionitis and Matrix syndrome soon kick in, to generate dizzying and frequently dazzling appeal (like - hey, remember this?), fully designed to a risk sensory overload of viewers’ memory banks. Everything from Avatar to Zardoz is scavenged for styles and ideas that are remixed, if rarely as well-matched as Sucker Punch, into this freewheeling - oh, so cool it’s terminally cool - scenario that can and often does feel like it’s a vague follow-up, but not a narrative sequel, to Last Action Hero (1993). The twists on familiar stuff are what drive its genre mash-up. Ever wondered what Kubrick’s nightmare-movie The Shining might look like if depicted as an Elm Street derivative?
Back to the game, and its hero-worshipped creator, we are told there are three keys to be found on the players’ quest. Clues that would annoy or baffle the Riddler are offered, and the supreme Easter egg is a winner-takes-all prize. But Spielberg knows that super-toys never last all summer long. Parzival, the alias of Wade (Tye Sheridan), teams up with elfin heroine Art3mis, alias of Samantha (Olivia Cooke), like hacker heroes staging an eco-rebellion against corporation IOI (101?) boss-man Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), his robotic mercenary I-R0k, and feisty assassin F’Nale (Hannah John-Kamen, Killjoys), who isn’t the movie’s final girl, but she does at least deliver this movie’s last punch as a visual punch-line.
Not just a movie inspired by 1980s media, RP1 is also, and primarily, a big-scale production that repeats elements of virtual reality from cyberpunk and then re-introduces its designer VR concept afresh, while still maintaining respect for the various genre touchstones, even those that are being acutely satirised here. The most peculiar thing about RP1 is that its young cast who portray the rebellious ‘High 5’ heroes of 2040s are exploring a futuristic creation that depends largely upon icons from modern history. The kids are playing with their grandparents’ toys. It’s rather amusing that teenager Wade Watts’ favourite movie action hero is Buckaroo Banzai. On a battlefield of inconvenient dangers, assorted subgenre references or genre riffs result in a bout of MechaGodzilla versus the Iron Giant. Also deployed for the Planet Doom finale, there’s a WMD (for the win?) disaster scene when a 'Cataclyst' bomb threatens to end everything of any VR value for all concerned.
If this was about the 1960s, the witty punch of the sci-fi movie would be ‘acid flashbacks’. As RP1 centres on the 1980s, but its tone is flashbacks with some weird twists. Although many parts of the movie lack any hint of true originality, the job of the makers is to rework and recycle the familiar into something re-bootable or reboot-worthy, and that’s achieved with aplomb in the movie’s Oasis virtuality to generate a blitz of purely honest fun (RP1 is definitely a bright city, not another Dark City, and it avoids the blatantly green eco-message of Avatar), whether any specific 1980s icon is actually being spoofed or not. Candidates for ultimate in-jokes appear every few minutes.
However, despite being a polished work of sci-fi media, RP1 begs the nagging question, what’s happened to pop culture to the 2040s? Has the exploitation of the 21st century’s remake industry resulted in utter social stagnation for all home entertainment? Perhaps this anorak movie’s formalised Gen X mentality (rewarding “steampunk, pirates”) means that our current decade’s cultural dystopia will continue unchallenged for the foreseeable future. Ready to break the geeksphere?
Nearly two hours of bonus viewing includes interview clips and behind-the-scenes material, showcasing mo-cap stunts in the Volume room, and live-action on studio sets (where Spielberg chose to shoot on film, not digital), about hi-tech design and special effects. Game over... perhaps only until 'Ready Player Two'?