We all want to escape reality every now and then. But what if we lived in a reality of such dead-end bleakness that we felt compelled to spend most of our waking hours plugged into a paradisiacal virtual universe? This question was the seed of Ernest Cline’s book “Ready Player One,” which was published before virtual reality gained traction as a media consumption game changer. Eight years after Warner Brothers purchased the screen rights, Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of the 2011 bestseller launches its ambitious theatrical run. An engrossing throwback to the adventurous way Spielberg made movies back in his heyday, “Ready Player One” is a virtual universe you won’t mind losing yourself in.
In 2045, 18-year-old Wade Watts lives in the Stacks, a slum in Columbus, Ohio. During his life, he’s endured the deaths of his parents, abuse at the hands of his guardian’s loser boyfriend, and his increasingly dystopian world. Like everyone else in this future, Wade finds reality to be so ugly and irreversible that, aside from eating and sleeping, he spends all of his time in the OASIS, a virtual universe created by tech titan James Halliday. When the Godlike legend dies, a video message announces that Halliday’s half-a-trillion dollar fortune and total control of the OASIS will be bequeathed to the first person to complete three challenges of mounting difficulty. Ever since, Wade (otherwise known by his OASIS avatar, Parzival) and fellow avatars Aech and Art3mis, have been trying to complete the first challenge. Wade’s success draws the attention of Nolan Sorrento, the CEO of the VR manufacturing corporation IOI. At that moment, the quest transforms from a benignly aggressive competition into a matter of life and death, where the playability of the OASIS is at stake.
Because most of the film’s 140-minute running time takes place in the OASIS, where characters are their avatars, the versions of themselves they are most comfortable being, the actors’ performances come most alive there. As the one responsible for keeping the frenetic momentum going, Tye Sheridan makes Wade a more-than-capable leader composed of equal parts of driven determination and Marty McFly charm. As Art3mis, Olivia Cooke lives up to her character’s enigmatic reputation, ensuring the viewer never runs out of questions about who Art3mis is in the real world. Lena Waithe is wickedly winning as Aech. Ben Mendelsohn is haunting and sinister as Sorrento, bringing urgency to the danger the heroes find themselves in. However, neither of these characters’ real-world versions feels even remotely exciting against their OASIS avatars.
Spielberg makes sure to take the viewer to the OASIS as soon as possible. Created through a blend of groundbreaking computer-generated imaging, motion capture, and voice work, the OASIS might feel a bit corny at first in its VFX-heavy aesthetic, but once the adrenaline-pumping first challenge is underway, the seduction is complete. One overflows with curiosity about what other worlds exist within the limitlessness of the OASIS. So much so that whenever a scene takes place in the real world, the viewer feels a burning impatience to return to the OASIS. This is the kind of movie that earns every 3-D and/or IMAX surcharge necessary for total sensory immersion.
“I’m a dreamer. I build worlds,” Halliday says at one point in the film. In essence, that’s what a storyteller is — someone who creates an alternate universe where we have vicarious experiences that shows us how high our potential can take us, individually and collectively. That’s who Spielberg and Cline are at their cores. The former’s films defined a generation and continue to inspire three decades later. The latter’s book captured millions of imaginations — including the director’s. Together, in a symbiotic marriage of explosive human creativity, Spielberg and Cline create a world of pure imagination that will jumpstart your inner drive and make your dreams a reality.