By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
Every year, the SXSW film festival offers its attendees either a secret screening or a last minute, surprise screening. This year, the film to fall under these categories happened to be Steven Spielberg’s adaptation the popular Ernest Cline novel Ready Player One. A few days prior to the screening, SXSW officials revealed that a certain “TBA” time slot in the schedule was in fact the new Spielberg movie. This came as little surprise to some attendees who had deduced the identity of the film, as Ready Player One already had a presence at the festival through a virtual reality promotion.
It was not only a treat to see Steven Spielberg himself, along with Ernest Cline and some of the cast, present the film to a packed Paramount theater who joyously welcomed the celebrities and obviously had a great time with the film. As for myself, I rather enjoyed the movie in all of its pop culture glory, though the movie does get a tad messy at times. Nevertheless, Spielberg proves that he was an outstanding choice to direct this film, as it proves to be an exciting and fun dose of popcorn cinema.
The movie takes place in a dystopian future where the world’s economies have collapsed and much of the people live in poverty. To escape this dreadful life, the impoverished and struggling practically exist in a virtual reality world created by computer genius James Halliday. One particular teen named Wade Watts enjoys his time in “The OASIS” where he exists under the code name of Parzival. As Parzival, Wade attempts to beat Halliday’s game called, “Anorak’s Quest.” The winner of this tremendously difficult game will be awarded complete control of the Oasis in addition to other prizes. Parzival is not alone in his quest, though. He does have his friends and colleagues competing as well, but they all face some serious competition from a massive conglomerate named Innovative Online Industries. Its CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) has assembled a team of players to face the challenges of the game in hopes of taking over the OASIS.
With a screenplay by Zak Penn, Steven Spielberg has taken Ernest Cline’s tribute to video games and 80s pop culture and made it into a thrilling and giddy-fun extravaganza. The story and screenplay are relatively simple and fun with the film playing out mostly as a highly enjoyable video game with the real stakes rooted in reality. The movie can be a bit much at times with a saturation of pop culture references and occasionally cluttered CG visuals, but Spielberg’s childlike heart helps keep the focus of the movie on the hearts of its heroes. It is definitely crowd-pleasing, pop entertainment and that’s just happens to be one of the director’s specialties.
The film features a fantastic cast with young Tye Sheridan giving a genuinely earnest performance as Wade/Parzival. To counter the main hero of the story requires a talented thespian with some classical sensibilities and that fell on the shoulders of Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn once again delivers an awesome villainous turn here. He is the perfect yin to Sheridan’s yang. Olivia Cooke gives a great performance as Parzival’s rival-turned-partner Ar3mis, a charming, but tough player with whom Parzival shares a mutual attraction. The movie also features marvelous work by Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Phillip Zhao, and Win Morisaki.
And despite the amount of reported differences there are from the novel, I sincerely feel that fans of the book will still love this film. Author Ernest Cline seems pleased with the finished product, as did much of the audience at the Paramount during its showing at SXSW. Even with its massive plethora of pop culture references which could go over some audiences heads, it is hard not to like a satisfying, old fashioned story of heroes battling villains for glory, regardless of the arena.