Columbus, Ohio in the year 2045, and life is hard in the Stacks, a towering slum where the only escape into the virtual world of the OASIS, an immersive gaming system which acts as recreation and a distraction from the wasteland of the world as experienced by much of the world population.
The inheritance of the children of a generation who chose the easy path of putting up with the problems of their society rather than seeking to change their lot, the world is now too far down the path, the divide between the haves and the have-nots too wide to overcome, the environment hopelessly damaged and polluted and the population out of control.
An orphan of that generation, Wade Watts (Detour’s Tye Sheridan) lives with his aunt Alice (The Secret of Crickley Hall’s Susan Lynch) and her latest layabout boyfriend Rick (The Witch’s Ralph Ineson) but in the OASIS he is Parzival who with his sidekick and best-friend-he’s-never-met Aech (Master of None’s Lena Waithe) seeks the three Easter Eggs hidden within the game left by the late designer James Halliday (Dunkirk’s Mark Rylance).
With full ownership of the platform granted to whomever solves the riddles, it could be a way out of the slums for Wade but he is only one of thousands competing for the prize, individuals, gamer clans and corporates such as Innovative Online Industries whose CEO Nolan Sorrento (Rogue One’s Ben Mendelsohn) sees victory as a final step to global domination.
Directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline based on Cline’s hugely popular 2011 novel, Ready Player One is a cross-generational, cross-platform, multi-media love-in celebrating decades of pop culture, from the early games of the Atari 2600 console to the latest immersive virtual reality experiences, from the classic Adam West Batmobile of the sixties through Marty McFly’s upgraded Delorean and the Iron Giant to a modified Firefly class transport vessel.
Aimed more at gamers than a cinema audience, at times Ready Player One feels like an enormous overlong and out-of-control advert, but while realism is perhaps not the aim despite playing to Spielberg’s strengths it lacks the genuine heart and magic which he once channelled into his greatest works, expertly designed and rendered but performed by avatars rather than genuine characters, the talented cast lost in the dazzle.
The recreation of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining emphasising the power of the practical over the digital there is ample flash, bang and momentum but the film lacks the authenticity of Sleep Dealer or Max Headroom which also considered virtual workforces kept as slaves, the power of megacorporations answerable to no-one and the manipulative control of a ubiquitous media which has replaced political governance and oversight.
The clue to the first puzzle childishly obvious, the film improves considerably after the half-way mark as Wade meets up in the real with his online clan, not only Aech but the semi-mythical Art3mis (The Limehouse Golem’s Olivia Cooke) and her friends Daito and Shoto (Win Morisaki and Philip Zhao), though their campaign against Sorrento is still played in broad strokes.
The overly earnest strings of Alan Silvestri conveying a sickly layer on top of an already gluttonous confection as the quest is laid out, telling the audience what to feel and when to feel it, there is a lack of consequence or emotion following the attack on the Stacks and the death of those who live there, the real world is as fake as the virtual when it should be emphasised that there will be no respawning for those innocents caught in the crossfire.
The nostalgic window dressing seemingly to distract from the minimal narrative, there is nevertheless a joy to be had from hearing electric rattle of a dying Martian War Machine and there is always the thrill of the forbidden in seeing games from the other side of the screen, but as hard as it tries Ready Player One is no more than the sum of its rendered polygons, lacking the character and spirit of Tron, a program running over thirty-five years before.
Ready Player One is on general release from Thursday 29th March and also screening in 3D and IMAX