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‘Ready Player One’ crosses ’80s video game nostalgia and our VR-studded future

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Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) tries to win the Easter Egg hunt in OASIS, while Samantha Cook (Olivia Cooke), Daito (Win Morisaki), and Sho (Philip Zhao) aid his escape from the antagonistic corporation IOI in the film 'Ready Player One.'
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Ready Player One
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Zak Penn, Ernest Cline
Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance.
Rated PG-13
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If you watch a movie based on a book (or, worse yet, a book you’ve read and loved), an easy trap you may fall into is comparing the two scene-by-scene. Judging a movie for its own merit is harder, simply because of the strong hold the original material has on your mind. For Ready Player One, the challenge is even harder — the directorial team had to decide whether they should keep the geeky, ’80’s reference-filled, esoteric, but nostalgia-inducing theme, or should they scrap it for something that is more accessible to the general populace? Spielberg took on the challenge and made an upbeat, colorful movie that is fun to watch, regardless of the background knowledge you have.

Ready Player One is set in a dreary 2045 Ohio, where people live in high-rise trailer parks strapped daylong to their high-tech VR goggles. The new god and ruler of this world goes by the name OASIS: a virtual world built by the eccentric, yet quite stereotypical nerd-genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance). OASIS is virtual reality as virtual reality was originally envisioned — a virtual world independent of the real world that provides a complete escape for people trying to outlive the world’s problems instead of solving them. The movie is set around the hunt for an “easter egg” in OASIS that will let the winner take control of OASIS and shape the future of the virtual world as they see fit.

The biggest novelty of the movie is that half of it is computer generated: the parts of the plot taking place within OASIS. This might strike you as odd in the beginning, but once the surprise wears off, it’s quite enjoyable to see what Spielberg did with the extra degrees of freedom. The classic movie-lover within you might frown until Perzival (Tye Sheridan), Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), and their team head into “The Shining.” And by “heading into,” I mean they literally walk into a hotel to experience the plot, showing the expanse to which the team creatively used the motif of virtual reality. And even if the movie snob isn’t satisfied, the kid within you might get excited to see a Gundam punch a Mecha-Godzilla, if either of them were part of your childhood. That’s where the movie is most successful in adapting from the books: a promise to shower you in nostalgia without being a full-on reference-fest. If you don’t get the references, fine; if you do, you will be giddy like a child on Christmas Eve.

Even with all these virtual reality indulgences, Spielberg is careful to walk the line between what’s real and what’s not. That’s why “reality is the only thing that’s real” becomes a recurring theme near the end. This message is somewhat downplayed by the lack of worldbuilding in the “real world,” and I suspect I knew what’s going on there only because I read the book beforehand. Still, the smaller, sinister details are enjoyable: like watching drones deliver pizzas or plant bombs.

My biggest complaint is Alan Silvestri’s soundtrack composition. Ready Player One offers a unique playground for everyone working in this movie — the mix between an ’80s theme and a backdrop of a grim, yet futuristic, 2040’s isn’t very common. In my opinion, Silvestri wasted this opportunity by opting for pop songs from the ’80s to create the atmosphere. The opportunity to define an age or a genre through music doesn’t come very often, and when it did, Silvestri shunned creative solutions to provide the simplest, most obvious answer.

Overall, Ready Player One delivers more than it initially promised to through a not-quite-faithful yet enjoyable adaptation of the book. This might not become the next Spielberg classic, but, unless you swear by the book, I am ready to bet you will enjoy this movie on your next excursion to the theater.