Virtual reality is the air guitar solo of modern cinema: a frenetic imagined activity in a made-up world that exists one level below the already made-up world of the story. Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, adapted from the 2011 YA novel by Ernest Cline, takes us on a freakily spectacular VR gaming ride through an infinitely malleable universe involving a frantic splurge of 70s and 80s pop culture references, including cheeky bits of Spielberg’s own creation. There’s loads of geek-upmanship – though real geeks won’t be happy about the holy hand grenade of Antioch being deployed without counting to three.
But as with all VR on film, from Tron in 1982 to the new Jumanji of 2017, I found a weightless, frictionless quality to this inner zone of digitally rendered experience. It’s a close encounter of the pixelated kind. Where’s the beef? And the movie is left with the tricky and anticlimactic business of negotiating the relationship between virtual reality and the boring old actual sort.
The film is set in 2045, and though we may yet see a fashion for YA dramas about pre-apocalyptic utopias, Ready Player One isn’t one of them. The future world is pretty badly beaten up after a series of wittily imagined seismic catastrophes, including the “bandwidth riots”. Cities are massive scuzzy slums and virtual reality is the opium of the masses. Tye Sheridan is Wade Watts, a lonely teenager living in Columbus, Ohio, which is now a gruesome favela of trailers stacked on top of each other. His only interest is in strapping on the VR headset and entering the alternative universe of the Oasis, as a mythic avatar named Parzifal. Here is a limitless fantasyscape of the mind where people can play games and have experiences. (The film hints subliminally at X-rated experiences in motels for those interested.) They can win digital money in various contests but possibly blow it all – “lose their shit”.
The game’s creator is the late James Halliday, played by Mark Rylance, an uber-nerd genius who is a cross between Willy Wonka, Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee. Before he died, Halliday hid three clues in his world for an “Easter egg” that would allow the discoverer complete control of this fabulous spectral kingdom. So Wade is an egg hunter or “gunter” along with some friends, including supercool Samantha (avatar: Art3mis), played by Olivia Cooke, on whom he has a painful cybercrush. His best friend is Aech (Lena Waithe). But creepy corporate goon Sorrento, played by Ben Mendelsohn, wants to grab the egg, and crush all these creative individuals for whom the Oasis is a wonderful playground. There’s a funny performance from TJ Miller as Sorrento’s morose henchman i-R0k.
The Oasis sure is a weird setup. We are invited to believe in the dreamy almost Christ-like vision of Halliday and his Easter egg, but he has created what amounts to a horrible Matrix blue-pill of global addiction. Wade’s Aunt Alice (Susan Lynch) has had her life effectively ruined by a violent boyfriend Rick (Ralph Ineson) who is hooked on its gambling potential. It isn’t at all clear how or if Wade will reform this, on finding the egg. Then there are those 80s references, including a gobsmacking romp through the world of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It’s 2045: how has Halliday conceived this obsession with that period? At one stage we see a simulacrum of his childhood bedroom, which looks like he grew up in the 70s and 80s. Did he grow up in some retro theme park? Or do future connoisseurs simply believe pop culture simply died with the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Well, the movie does sort of answer these worries with the first clue that Wade chases after. He spots the great man’s whimsical and subversive interest in “going backwards” and realises that it may be the key to the extraordinary drag race in a fabricated New York. That really is a sensational, gasp-inducing sequence with an uproarious, showstopping appearance from King Kong. The solution to this clue brings the curtain down on the first act, but the first act is where nearly all the juice is. From then on, the action gets clotted and muddled and somehow contrives to separate Samantha from Wade and his friends to create a narrative crisis.
It’s a film in which Spielberg’s reverence for the wonder and idealism of youth has had to compromise with wised-up survivalist toughness of the new YA mode. But what extraordinary visuals this film conjures up, with images that appear and disappear like quicksilver memes.