"In no passage of the holy canonical books there can be found either divine precept or permission to take away our own life, whether for the sake of entering on the enjoyment of immortality, or of shunning, or ridding ourselves of anything whatever. Nay, the law, rightly interpreted, even prohibits suicide, where it says, 'Thou shalt not kill.' This is proved especially by the omission of the words "thy neighbor," which are inserted when false witness is forbidden." – Saint Augustine
Yes, I know, nothing says 'welcome to this semi-humorous film review column' like a quote about self-slaughter from a mediaeval theologian. But bear with me, for it's Easter, and if we're going to do religion, then what better time? We are, if nothing else, about to cast an eye over a film which is probably more concerned with Easter eggs than any other in history, and so surely there's some kind of connection there, right?
Oh well, please yourselves. Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One has managed to swing the coveted Easter weekend release for this year, although this may be less to do with the thematic connection than the fact there isn't a Fast and Furious movie out this year. Certainly, were it not for Spielberg's involvement, and the fact the film's had $175 million spent on it, you might not expect it to get such an honour, for it is after all a computer game movie, not a genre with the most distinguished pedigree.
Think of the quarter-century-plus history of the computer game movie and your mind ineluctably crowds with memories of Bob Hoskins in Super Mario Brothers, Dwayne Johnson in Doom, Milla Jovovich in the Resident Evil series, and much of the filmography of Uwe Boll. It can be somewhat traumatic, obviously. (Just the other day I observed that while watching the new Tomb Raider movie is more fun than is the case with either of the Angelina Jolie ones, the same can be said for sawing off your own feet.)
Ready Player One isn't quite in the same category, being a film about playing computer games rather than an adaptation of one. There is a lot else going on here too, though, including some dystopian SF and something rather new which I haven't really seen in a movie before (we will come to this in time).
The film is the story of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teenager living in a sort of poverty-stricken demi-monde of 2045 following various ecological and financial disasters (well, as poverty-stricken as is compatible with everyone having top-end gaming and computer gear in their shacks, anyway). The real world is so thoroughly grim that everyone has retreated into a virtual-reality fantasy called the Oasis, where they can live out their dreams and be and do whatever they want.
The creator of this cyber-utopia, Halliday (Mark Rylance), has passed away, but left three keys hidden inside the game world. Whoever finds them first will gain ownership and total control over the Oasis, in addition to a stack of cash. Needless to say everyone is looking for the keys, including slimy corporate operator Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who plans to flood it with advertising and reconfigure paradise for maximum profit. After a chance discovery puts Wade on the path to winning the prize, forces both inside the simulation and in the real world start to take a serious and possibly lethal interest in him. He and his gamer buddies team up with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), another key-hunter who sees control of the Oasis as a means of bringing about social justice, and set about solving the rest of the clues...
Well, Steven Spielberg may be 72 this year, but he has lost none of his ability to wrangle a giant popcorn blockbuster, and with Ready Player One the great man is in magisterial form: the story is told with assurance, impeccably paced, and with stormingly good set-pieces at exactly the moments when they're needed. I found it to be an almost irresistibly entertaining film, judged simply as an adventure and a piece of pure spectacle.
That said, of course, there is a lot of other stuff going on here. The actual story is not especially innovative, being a quest for plot coupons with various twists and reversals along the way, and most of the incidental fun of the movie comes from the fact that elements from a vast number of movies, TV shows and films exist in parallel in the Oasis. There's a car chase near the top of the film in which one character is driving the DeLorean from Back to the Future, someone else is riding the iconic bike from Akira, and a third person is behind the wheel of the 1960s Batmobile, all of which are being pursued by King Kong. In a battle scene, people variously whip out colonial marine pulse-rifles, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, or the glaive from Krull. At one point there is a brief appearance by a big name member of Toho's monster stable. It goes on and on and on (though there are certain predictable exceptions – nothing from Marvel, obviously, and the most recognisable thing from the stellar conflict franchise in the movie is Ben Mendelsohn).
And while I found all this to be rather delightfully amusing, I imagine that if you don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure fantasy and SF pop culture it may just be baffling, or even distracting. At one point the characters visit a lovingly recreated simulation of a well-known Stanley Kubrick movie, which is fine provided you've seen that movie already. (One does inevitably wonder why the youth of 2045 are quite so clued-up on – even obsessed with – pop culture from sixty to seventy years earlier, and why there's relatively little from the 2010s. But I digress.)
Now, I am aware that some people have already taken Ready Player One to task over this, claiming the movie embodies the worst kind of geeky fanboy attitudes – basically, if you don't have a vast knowledge of popular culture, you are only worthy to be scorned and pitied. The fact that this may actually be pushback against the attitude, still quite prevalent in society in general, that geeky fanboys are the ones who deserve scorn and pity doesn't appear to have occurred to some people.
From here they tend to roll on to what is perceived as another problem with the film – namely, that it has a white male heterosexual hero, which is apparently practically anachronistic in a post-Wonder Woman, post-Black Panther world. I think this just sounds like people being determined not to like the film: it has very contemporary ideas about the fluidity of race and gender (who you are in real life doesn't have to have anything in common with your virtual avatar), and it's made clear that Wade only succeeds with the help of his very diverse group of friends.
What no-one seems to have really picked up on is what seems to me to be a genuine case of the film trying to have its cake and eat it. The central conflict is basically posed as one between free-spirited, iconoclastic, rebellious youth on the one hand, and massive, ruthless, profit-obsessed corporations on the other, with the kids obviously in the right. Well, fair enough, but the movie is being distributed by Warner Brothers, which made $31 billion last year, and is not noted for being a humanitarian charitable foundation: if they genuinely believed that high-end entertainment should be free to all, we wouldn't have had to pay over twenty quid for our tickets (after taking concessions and my freebie card into account). And yet we did.
Well, this isn't the first film to be hypocritical about big business, but it is emblematic of the way that Ready Player One comes on all street and revolutionary and ends up simply being rather timidly conventional in its attitudes. There is nothing genuinely surprising or unusual about its message or attitudes – in the end the characters decide that everyone should spend less time in the Oasis, because the only really real thing is reality (profound stuff, here – I'm surprised that Opus' 1985 classic 'Life is Life' didn't end up on the soundtrack, the period is certainly right).
What's going on here is something fairly typical of films about VR and the like: the ultimate message that this can only ever be a poor substitute for the so-called 'real world'. A really subversive and possibly much more interesting ending would be one akin to that of Brazil, with everyone retreating into their own personal solipsistic fantasy worlds, leaving the real world deserted but for humming consoles and comatose gamers. But modern culture is ultimately as concerned with the preservation of social order as religion was centuries ago, and just as Saint Augustine was at pains to point out that suicide won't get you into heaven (otherwise there is the risk of true believers topping themselves just to cut short their time in an imperfect world), so these days films and books about VR seem obliged to stress that they can only ever be a distraction, simply because someone's got to do the work to keep the real world running.
In Ready Player One, this sudden emphasis on the priority of the real world comes as a crunching gear-change given we've just sat through over two hours of the Oasis being depicted as a miraculous utopia where dreams can literally come true, but it's no less than what you would expect in a big mainstream movie like this one. It meets its social obligations with due diligence – but fortunately, Spielberg is also around to make sure it more than passes muster as a piece of entertainment, even if it isn't as challenging as any of the episodes of Black Mirror it occasionally resembles. A big, shallow pool of a movie; lots of fun to splash around in, assuming you're familiar with the water, anyway.