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Film & Television

‘Ready Player One’: a candy-coloured lesson on VR’s dangers

By Harry Windsor
Spielberg has principles, and if you don’t like them, he has others

Set in 2045, Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One imagines a future America ravaged by war and environmental degradation. Its citizens spend their lives inside a virtual reality simulation that has displaced the real world’s function as the site of commerce, education and social interaction. The OASIS, as the platform is called, is limitless, with hundreds of planets for users to explore, most riffing on a theme: the pop culture of the 1980s. In the book, the OASIS is described as looking nearly indistinguishable from the real world. In the movie, directed by the 1980s’ most iconic filmmaker, Steven Spielberg, it looks like a game. Imagine if The Matrix was half-animated and you’re in the ballpark.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is an orphan growing up with his aunt and her thuggish boyfriend in the “stacks”, high-rise trailer parks that have sprung up on the outskirts of derelict major cities. The book is structured as a treasure hunt, with Wade racing to solve a series of riddles in order to find three keys hidden by the OASIS’s deceased creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance, still overplaying subtlety). The first to do so will be granted control of the entire simulation. But Wade and his fellow questers have to contend with a sinister corporation, IOI, which is determined to win the contest and start charging people for access. IOI will also end the online anonymity that has made the OASIS a place where, say, black women can work and compete on a level footing.

Screenwriters Zak Penn (The Avengers) and Cline himself make the book’s endless movie references less decade-specific, with The Iron Giant and King Kong thrown in alongside touchstones such as Back to the Future (on which Spielberg served as an executive producer), while wisely jettisoning the book’s allusions to anything Spielberg directed himself. The story, about the loss and reconstituting of family, is Spielbergian enough. The film expedites Wade’s joining forces with a ragtag group of teens to take down IOI, and the focus on friendship dilutes the messianic fantasy that the book (like countless YA counterparts) recycled in the wake of J.K. Rowling. It’s an ensemble piece rather than – as in the novel – the story of an overweight teen living a life of complete isolation while flirting with a geek’s idea of a cool girl in virtual chat rooms.

Spielberg opens with a swooping glide over the stacks, before cutting to Wade clambering down from his bedroom (located on top of the washing machine in his aunt’s trailer, a spin – sorry – on Harry’s broom cupboard under the stairs). Wade climbs past assorted neighbours, all plugged in, and makes his way to an abandoned van, buried beneath a mountain of junked cars, where he dons haptic gloves and a headset to enter the OASIS. Like the Harry Potter films, Spielberg’s Ready Player One cuts back on the puzzle solving in favour of straightforward, explicitly physical challenges. The first one – involving an arcade game in the book – in the film becomes a Mario Kart-like race across Manhattan, from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park. Spielberg’s OASIS is completely computer-generated, candy-coloured and plasticky, and the avatars of Wade and his pals look vaguely like anime characters, with the slightly dead eyes of the director’s Tintin.

The decision to make the OASIS digital rather than live-action feels like a misjudgement. The film is about the dangers of inhabiting a manufactured world, even if it’s infinitely more pleasant than the real one, but the virtual world it presents doesn’t feel very pleasant at all: a hyper-speed fantasia surely only seductive to teenage boys addicted to first-person shooters. A scene where an adult woman neglects the burning stove to keep playing shoot-’em-up, her child tugging at her sleeves, rings entirely false.

Ready Player One is a cautionary tale about virtual reality, but it’s a classic straw-man cheat. It presents the viewer with 360-degree gaming rather than the nearly photo-real future VR of the book, and who really wants to live inside Halo? Gone are the OASIS high schools, where every citizen has access to a world-class education via virtual classrooms. The film’s predictable thesis about logging off – Halliday quotes the old Groucho Marx line, “I’m not crazy about reality but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal” – feels more unthinking than sincere. Spielberg himself is an investor in VR companies like VRC and Dreamscape, as well as augmented reality variations such as Magic Leap. The book includes the Marx quote, too, but its conclusion is more ambivalent and altogether less pious. As for the film, Spielberg could well have gone with another of Groucho’s greatest hits: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them … well, I have others.”

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

© Warner Bros.

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