Review: Spielberg’s Ready Player One Is the Kurukshetra of Geekdom

Steven Spielberg confirms yet again that he still has it in him to delight his audience, writes Ranjib Mazumder. 

Updated
Movie Reviews
5 min read
A still from <i>Ready Player One.</i>
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In Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg goes back to the future, to a time when he was the wide-eyed wonder boy of cinema, dreaming a little dream for every Peter Pan in the world. With this film, he stirs up a virtual reality cauldron, teeming with the non-stop gust of pop culture figures, and a ride hell-bent on pleasuring its self-pitying fanboys.

The book by Ernest Cline before its release led to a bidding war, and looking at razzle dazzle of its cinematic filter (adapted by Zak Penn and Cline himself), it comes off as no surprise. We’re living in a time when sequels, reboots and franchises rule the box office, and a tiny speck of brand recall makes for a titanic amount of money.

Ready Player One by that yardstick is the Kurukshetra of geekdom, where countless fan favourites appear to battle it out.

Since there’re too many hats to be doffed, the film relies on straight exposition, cuing us with a voiceover, and wheeling us into a plot that is much like playing a video game, solving the puzzle, crossing the level, and winging it to throw a punch in the air.

The year is 2045, quite near from where we stand now, but in this film’s vision, the world has gone to the dogs. Trailers are parked one atop another in this dystopian era, a tricky balance to begin the film with a sweeping eye, and we meet Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an 18-year old resident. He, like everyone around him, escapes to the cybernetic world named OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) because reality is too taxing. This OASIS is the place where two-thirds of the film is set, a virtual multiplayer game in which you can be the avatar of your favourite character. A drag race to end all races.

As Wade wades past gazillions of shiny characters, in his earnest enthusiasm, he makes us meet his friends: Art3mis, Aech, Daito, and Sho. The real actors playing them form a certain delight, so we’d refrain from mentioning them. The narrative noise cools down whenever Spielberg regular Mark Rylance appears as James Halliday or Anorak - his Gandalf like avatar. He is the co-creator of the OASIS who is dead and has hidden Easter Eggs for true fans to unlock and win the control of the fanboy heaven. For a teen to be a titan, there must be a villain, who comes in the form of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn in sly cheerfulness), the chief of Innovative Online Industries (IOI) who employs his army and henchmen to win the contest.

Spielberg confirms yet again that he still has it in him to delight his audience with an adrenaline rush. His virtuosity is on full display whenever OASIS is in front of our eyes.

It’s a sight to behold. But, it’s also too busy and too stuffed for a pair of human eyes to fully comprehend. Nostalgia goes all guns blazing and with too many candies to pop. Wade’s chiseled game version, Parzival’s quest (much like the Arthurian hero’s pursuit) for the keys takes him first to a race, a race so fast, so zip-zap-zoom through serpentine roads that you literally run short of breath. Hurdles pour in too, from Spielberg’s homegrown T-rex to the great King Kong. If this is about speedy sensations, the film goes a notch higher later when the gang finds themselves in the Overlook Hotel. The idea of a virtual reality game blossoms to the hilt here, as Stanley Kubrick’s manic madness gets saluted with a lived-in terror in the eyes.

A still from <i>Ready Player One.</i>
A still from Ready Player One.
(Photo courtesy: Twitter)

So far, so good. But one by one, many spots of bother show up.

For a film that zigzags between real and the virtual, Spielberg seems to be finding it difficult to locate a heart in the real world setting.

As soon as the video game filter is off, the elation wilts in a flash. The curious cases of players who might be very different from their real-life personas never gets attention beyond window dressing. The real-life dystopia never feels life-extinguishing, and the tensions never feel as if something is at stake. What happened to the director who piqued brains and hearts of generations of moviegoers in equal measure? Alas, everything here is rendered with an airy touch, so much so that when Wade calls out to the universe to save OASIS – the final battle cry ― it’s again just that, a bag full of air.

Ready Player One transmits a gorgeous irony with its release. It imagines Halliday as a saint-like figure, while Sorrento is portrayed as the polar opposite, the corporate who wishes to own every grub of innocent fanboy delights.

This division renders it a little dated, since the post-internet phenomena like Cambridge Analytica, or Aadhaar, are teaching us how both are essentially the same, that we’re just pawns in the game of data cultivation.

Is it difficult to fathom that geek culture thrives on selling merchandise of characters and emotions that were born out of corporate interests?

Of course, fans would disagree. Their emotions would backflip. But even with the handling of fans, the film tiptoes with indeterminate passions.

At a key point, Wade tells Nolan that a fanboy knows a hater. This dialogue in the current climate of Marvel vs DC or SRK vs Salman toxicity serves fans as a collection of zealots who know nothing better than their beloved icons.

Wade solves every OASIS challenge by studying Halliday’s anxieties, devotions and obsessions. The narrative, however, looks at Halliday as a sage, never taking a quip at his neurotic narcissism which led him to design a whole game with his private details. The fans, as he correctly guessed, would queue up to revere him like Jesus Christ Superstar.

Poster of <i>Ready Player One.</i>
Poster of Ready Player One.
(Photo courtesy: Twitter)

This is not a revenge of the nerds, rather a portrait of a fan who never grew out of his boyhood days, never managed to overcome the fear of kissing a girl.

The strength and consistency of Spielberg is never under question, even his recent underwhelmers had a certain splendor that very few in Hollywood can match up to.

A relentless marathon of allusions to nerdy joys, Ready Player One would have been a cutting-edge sensation if it came from a newbie, but here we’re talking about one of the leading lights of cinema.

Spielberg has been one of the key figures who shaped popular culture with his animals, aliens, and action figures and for that reason, his choice of directing a fanboy fiction seems at odds with the very idea of this film. Can a guru look at his disciples with reverence?

(The writer is a journalist, a screenwriter, and a content developer who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. He tweets @RanjibMazumder)

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