Last week I criticised the new Tomb Raider film for being too much about the game and not enough about the story and the characters. It was overly episodic and felt like watching someone else working through the levels on a computer console. Frankly I did enough of that as a kid when me and my mate with an Atari 2600 would take it in turns to play a life where mine would last thirty seconds and theirs thirty minutes.
Now then we have Ready Player One which literally consists of watching people play video games. It is set in a future America where citizens escape their drab lives by entering a fantastic online VR world. (There is no evidence of anyone outside the US taking part, this web apparently not being world wide.) A few years prior to the start of story the creator of this candy coloured kingdom has hidden three keys somewhere inside it and the person who successfully races, fights, dances, shoots and puzzles their way to where they all are wins the whole chocolate factory. Knowing the premise I was expecting more flashbacks to boring afternoons aged ten sitting twiddling my thumbs rather than a plastic controller in Simon Anderson’s living room.
It turns out I needn’t have worried. My other problem with Tomb Raider was that, despite clear intentions in this regard, it wasn’t enough like Raiders of the Lost Ark. The reason Ready Player One works is because it is actually a lot like Raiders of the Lost Ark, not in its setting but in its sense of mystery and adventure. Like Indiana Jones the protagonists here are on a quest but the clues and solutions aren’t hidden in ancient religious relics or texts this time, they are hidden in 80s movies and other contemporary pop culture and it is just glorious. As a mid forties film nerd watching this I felt like an Egyptologist watching a Mummy movie (a good one) and I was in heaven.
Seriously, I cannot tell you how thrilled I was when Chewbacca turned up in last year’s Wonder or when Wolverine had a tiny cameo in Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. I love those little moments of what pretentious ex-film studies students like me call cinematic intertextuality and this delivers the mother lode. Reader Player One features Doc Brown’s DeLorean, Jurassic Park’s T-Rex, King Kong (sadly not in 1930’s stop motion), the dance from Saturday Night Fever, the clothes from Buckeroo Banzai, Spock’s coffin from The Wrath of Khan, Akira’s red motorcycle, Adam West’s Batmobile, Clark Kent’s glasses, the Alien chest burster (one of my favourite moments), a character from a classic schlocky slasher that I won’t spoil and (in my absolutely favourite moment) the location of a particular classic 1980 movie that I also won’t spoil. The Millennium Falcon gets mentioned but Disney own Star Wars now so that’s all and even Bill & Ted and John Hughes get a name check. There’s much more but you get the idea. Not even the Lego movie can match this film for other cinema references and I totally geeked out over it. (Although if it is 2045 why are all the iconic things people use from the 80s? Did nothing cool happen in the ensuing fifty years?)
Fortunately the story that surrounds all of these props and characters is more that good enough to handle them. There is a proper sense of adventure as our heroes face virtual peril in the virtual world and real peril in the real one and they way they are vulnerable when they are active online creates great tension just as it did in The Matrix. Of course if comparisons to Raiders of the Lost Ark are going to hold up then it needs great characters too and while it doesn’t quite measure up here, it does well enough. Tye Sheridan is a likeable lead but for me Olivia Cooke provides the film’s heart. She is a more compelling presence and while she does require rescuing at one point she has plenty of power and agency of her own. She definitely has the Ripley Factor. They also use the character and her skinnier big eyed avatar to make some level of statement about the way we present ourselves to meet certain standards of beauty and the stronger inner beauty we have in reality. The other young supporting players are also fun in a way that appropriately is reminiscent of E.T and The Goonies.
For some reason cinema audiences are still waiting for a satisfying film adapted from a video game but there have been a number of movies set in a video games world that really work. Tron, Scott Pilgrim, Wreck it Ralph and now Ready Player One all succeed because they embrace the conventions of the medium rather than trying to shape them to fit a totally different format. (Not Pixels though, Pixels is terrible.)
I heartily recommend Ready Player One, it has all the Easter Eggs you need this weekend. Director Steven Spielberg shows the same sense of adventure here as he with Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and Tin Tin coupled with the spectacle of Close Encounters. (The light show is all very impressive as the heroes hunt around this spectacular CGI world. It puts the disco back in discovery.) Some may find the film cliched and a little predictable but for me it’s a wonderful example of old fashioned storytelling in a very up to date setting.
Is this one for the kids?
Ready Player One is rated 12A and it is mostly entirely typical of that certificate with low level suspense and bloodless battles. There are a couple of points that replay moments from films with a higher classification though and one of these is definitely not bloodless. There is some choice language at one point too but it is justified under the circumstances and quite funny in context.