READY PLAYER ONE – fast and fun, but its ending falls short

On one level I enjoyed this Steven Spielberg sc-fi adventure immensely. It’s a film expertly crafted and designed to appeal to two generations: young people who’ve grown up with gaming and the virtual worlds gaming allows; and people like me, who’ve grown up in the 60’s and 70’s. Ready Player One fires so many popular cultural images at you, and at times at such speed, that you feel giddy trying to spot them all. Overlaying all this, Spielberg provides genuine thrills and humour throughout. So on the most basic question, did one have a good time, the answer is, yes, one did.

The film plays out in both its real world of Cleveland Ohio, and the virtual world of The Oasis. Our heroes are a gang of youngsters, led by Wade (Tye Sheridan) and Samantha (Olivia Cooke). We see them throughout in both their human guises, and as their avatars, called Parzival and Artemis. The story is set in 2045, after the creator of The Oasis has died. But he left behind a challenge, and whoever wins the challenge, to be played out within The Oasis, will gain control of it. Battling our heroes is an evil corporation led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).

All the action in The Oasis is presented in computer generated form, but as director James Cameron proved with Avatar, movie goers are perfectly capable of lapping this up. In this film there are some stunning computer generated sequences, and that’s even watching it in conventional 2d form. I found a car race early on in the film quite breathtaking, and it showed how a director can use a computer to provide angles and points of view it would seem impossible to replicate in real life.

As for the popular culture I referred to, it will simply spoil it for you if I reveal any of the characters, imagery and songs of recent times which make an appearance. Let’s just say you need to keep your eyes and ears open and your wits about you. Perhaps the only way to appreciate the whole effect is to wait until the film is released on dvd and blu ray, and literally watch parts of the film in slow motion. Maybe only then you’ll pick up on all the references.

Special mention though must be made of an incredible homage paid to one memorable film from a highly regarded director, who brought to the screen the work of a hugely popular author. I’ll say no more, other than there were intakes of breath around me during this sequence – including from me.

The cast is impressive, with Mark Rylance and Simon Pegg adding their skills to the ensemble work. The aforementioned Mendelsohn is given a much bigger role here as the baddie than he did in Star Wars, and brings both humour and menace to the role.

So a fun ride is assured for all. But I did start this review saying “On one level I enjoyed..”  A couple of aspects niggled. Firstly I found the ending a degree or three too soppy, with the accompanying swirling music just a bit too much to bear. Secondly, there’s the matter of the movie’s message. Sure, this is pure entertainment, but a film about gaming and virtual reality brings with it some baggage, namely the concern many will have over the worth of gaming, enticing people as it does to spend hours of their lives sitting down in front of screens, playing make believe.

To its credit, Ready Player One doesn’t shirk from this, but in the end it comes down on the side of no more than mild moderation. Given the whole film is about how exciting virtual reality can be,  that’s not surprising. But it felt wishy washy to me. If it was trying to persuade young people – or any people for that matter – that too much time away from the real world can be bad for you, I don’t think it will win many converts.

For all that, I still enjoyed the adventure. I’ve never been a fan of gaming and I’m not about to start now, but Ready Player One offers so much fun it would be churlish to get too caught up in the moral debate. One more thing – I strongly suspect it would be worth paying a little more to watch in in 3d.

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