Brace yourself. The Oasis launches in 3…2…1…
20 minutes later, I’m starting to get a little bored by the lackluster backstory, told to me rather than shown. The opening of Ready Player One is loaded, weighted down really, by details about the world it inhabits. But frankly, who cares? We all came to see the action-packed, retro film Spielberg does so well. Fortunately, it does eventually arrive.
Our hero and guide on this journey, Wade “Parzival” Watts, takes on the challenge of the Oasis’ dead creator : find 3 keys in the blissful virtual reality, and become its owner. Along the way, fall into nearly every pop culture reference, sci-fi fantasy cliché, and real-life drama and romance you can imagine.
Frankly, though, part of this film’s success comes from its handle on pop culture and clichés. Take, for example, the name “Parzival”–called out on screen as a reference to the crusading knights seeking the Holy Grail, it actually servers to anchor part of Spielberg’s commentary. A commentary which of course must be attributed to the book’s original author, Ernest Cline.
Similarly to the Indian Jones grail, the easter egg at the end of Watts’ path takes on far more humble origins when (spoilers follow) it becomes evident that the grail is a test and a temptation. Also featured is Monty Python’s “Quest for the Holy Grail,” whose explosive callback I’ll leave you to find.
Other tropes to find include “evil dystopian slave company,” “amusingly helpful butler,” and “giant robot dinosaurs.”
What other commentaries can we dig out of Ready Player One ? Well, for one, it’s reminiscent of esports in a number of ways. You have real people competing online for money and “stuff™,” and it ends up becoming a real way of life. But it goes deeper, it sucks people in. They avoid the harsh realities of their world for The Oasis, an escapist fantasy. Wade’s arrival at the truth, that “Reality is real,” becomes thus the (extra) life-saving game-changer. It’s almost like Le Petit Prince, who taught us that “the essential is invisible to the eyes.”
The “butler” later admits in person that the game was never meant to be played solo. Up to you to decide if he meant The Oasis or life. But it piques another point relevant to today’s game culture: couch co-op, solo mode, and online multiplayer. Will we continue to move towards lonely gamers playing with online friends, or will we see a resurgence of the “party friendly” cooperative community games?
Finally, let’s touch on one last point: screen addiction, and the intertwining of reality and virtuality. The film makes a clear point about both dystopia video games. There can be too much of a good thing. It also raises the interesting philosophical question of real-world effects for virtual actions. I’m not only talking about the delivery of prizes earned for feats accomplished online, but the way Watts calls together a virtual army in the game and later a physical one to protect his human body. It’s rather reminiscent of The Matrix, actually, with the cables and headsets and evil men descending in suits upon the kid’s body, still hooked into the machine.
But Watts’ actions, both virtually and in real life, impact all those around him. They cause people to move and make decisions. They stand up. They engage in reality. And as we grow ever closer to 2045 and a world dominated by our online presence(s), how will we reconcile the effects and consequences of our actions? How will we redefine responsibility? How will the law work?
Go in, suffer the first 20 minutes, and then forget all about it, because this movie is one heck of a ride, with chase scenes in both worlds tying up dozens of geek culture references into what feels less like a Grail quest and more like a liberation. And don’t forget your sense of nostalgia.
To note: I saw this movie in French. It’s possible that I missed something crucial. If you think so, let me know.