Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Zak Penn and Ernest Cline; Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Cinematographer: Janusz Kamiński
Producer: Donald De Line, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Steven Spielberg, and Dan Farah
by Jon Cvack
Continued from Part 1...
The story takes place in 2045. Due to some political events unknown, America has sunk into a dystopia. There seems to be some form of a universal basic income as most citizens, while living in trailers stacked as tall as skyscrapers, spend the vast majority of their lives in the virtual reality MMO called OASIS; designed by your prototypical socially awkward, though benevolent computer programmer Anorak (Tye Sheridan). Anorak had created the game as a dedication to all of the great media from popular culture - films (including a sizeable chunk of Spielberg’s own work), comic books, video games, music, cartoons, you name it.
Anorak has hidden an Easter egg in the game, in which through solving a series of three puzzles, the winner could win control of OASIS. Anorak’s former partner Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn; who’s becoming one of my new favorite actors) owns Innovative Online Industries and seeks to win the contest and win control over the program where he’ll run ads, institute paywalls, and stand to profit hundreds of billions of dollars. The problem is that the announcement has been made for years and still no one’s solved even the first riddle.
Gunter’s avatar in the game is called Parzival, who looks like a three-dimensional anime character. He’s friends with a character named Aech (Lena Waithe) which looks like Street Fighter’s Zangief was a robot. She owns a massive garage where, amongst other vehicles and machines, and is building a lifesize model of the Iron Giant. In a time of more inclusion, Spielberg shows how it’s done; demonstrating that our actual selves are meaningless within the world; disguising Aech’s voice with just a bit more bass to mask it’s actual creator. It left me wondering if virtual reality could be one of the greatest tools in the fight against bigotry.
One of Anorak’s first puzzles involves beating a complex car and dangerous race which nobody has ever won, including an army of indentured players owned by Nolan Innovative Online Industries. Parzival drives an old Delorean (there are many Back to the Future references in this, which again, given the logic that it’s not Spielberg’s choice so much as Anorak’s makes it all work without distraction), and while many have gotten hundreds of feet away from the finish line King Kong always ends up destroying the potential victors.
Anorak had allegedly left the answer to the unbeatable in his archive library which, though perused by thousands, has never been cracked. Unfortunately this was the weakest part of the story, as Parzival decides to check back just one more time and finally, by watching a video of a conversation between Anorak and Nolan which he’s seen it dozens of times before, he finally gets the answer. It’s as simple as Anorak mentioning something about driving in reverse that leads Parzival to try the race one more time, slamming into reverse and driving under the course that had claimed so many machines and avatars.
One of the story’s greatest pieces of logic is that if you die in the game you lose all of the devices, tools, powers, etc. that you’ve managed to achieve; more or less preventing players from fighting with one another, given the risk. Thus, players are disincentivized from pursuing the race with reckless disregard; that is, by making some “million” dollar move which could overcome the King Kong.
What makes the story work well is that it abandons any attempt to up the stakes via the norm of worldwide existential crisis; retreating back to the very narrative styles that Anorak was most passionate about; namely 80s action movies. Nolan recruits the help of a nefarious avatar named i-R0k (T.J. Miller) who is essentially a type of in game bounty hunter that works closely with Innovative Online Industries (think of it like the WoW farmers who created leveled-out characters to sell at a profit). After Parzival beats the first challenge, all the other players follow.
Parzival’s success makes him an immediate success. Art3mis and Aech warn him against maintaining his current image or revealing his actual name to others. Soon it slips and Nolan tracks down the real life Wade Watts; offering him to make him rich in return for solving the riddle of IOI. Wade refuses and so begins a great cat and mouse game, all while they try to solve the remaining challenges before Nolan succeeds.
One of the most brilliant scenes takes place at The Outlook Hotel; not offering some computer generated enhanced version (for the most part), but what looks like the actual hotel. It all adds up into a universe that abides by the principle that popular culture and all of the art it includes are as much a part of our day to day lives as art, the media, religion, politics, sports any other passion you can think of. The world’s seemingly endless visual possibilities create the foundation of logic that defends the creation of the most surreal and jam packed CGI I’ve ever seen; in which even the smallest detail seems to be a reference to something else. Counter to your typical summer blockbuster which wants creates a surrealistic world that somehow functions within reality, Spielberg understood that the best place for these types of devices to operate was in nascent world of virtual reality.
All in all, I saw the film and what it accomplished visually as the sunset of popular cinema. There will always be summer blockbusters, but I was left wondering how long it could last if and when this type of virtual reality arrives. It seems more likely that people would watch films within the world than go to an actual cinema; and that given all the other things you could be doing - actually interacting within a narrative rather than passively watching one - that films would remain a fringe cultural event; similar to literature or theater (as I’ve said before). Ready Player One is very much a harbinger of things to come. I think we’ll look back at this film as eerily prescient; the way 2001 and its thoughts on artificial intelligence are all the more impressive over fifty years later. This is the type of film that makes you excited for when the technology rolls around; allowing you to understand how and why people would remain forever connected. Compared to the real world it offers endless possibilities; in which the user is only limited by their imagination. Ready Player One is the fusion between classic Spielberg and his striving CGI adaptation that we were all waiting for.
BELOW: Wonder what Stephen King thought?
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