The only way War and Peace can get a mention in Ready Player One is via a quote from Lex Luthor in the 1978 Superman movie, where the master villain puts down the people who can read it and come away thinking it’s a ‘simple adventure story’. The vision of a post-collapse America in 2045 is of a piled-up trashheap where folks are addicted or enslaved to game-playing systems that enable them to live more exciting lives in a VR secondary world called OASIS, which is itself littered with the pop culture trivia that defined (and limited) the life of its arch-nerd inventor John Halliday (Mark Rylance). Scripted by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, from Cline’s novel, and directed by Steven Spielberg, this actually is a simple adventure story … and never seems inclined to pull back and wonder whether the world depicted is dystopian in its fantasies as well as its realities.
It’s a world where there’s only popular culture, and anything more ambitious or challenging exists only because it’s been co-opted into corporate IP, so we get snatches of Ligeti only because Stanley Kubrick used them in The Shining and Ted Hughes has a legacy only because of The Iron Giant. The whole plot, which is The Da Vinci Code redone with pop trivia instead of classical culture, is predicated on computer game geek-off death matches – Gundam vs MechaGodzilla! – because only second- or third-hand imagination survives. In a deeper reading of the set-up, Halliday is a worse influence on the future than the ostensible villain, Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who just wants to infect OASIS with 80% adverts rather than turn over 100% of the world’s brain to lists of the schools in ‘80s teen movies or the spaceships and robots in ‘70s science fiction films and TV shows with literally no sense that any of these things had actual content. Spielberg, who brought together Disney and Warners toons for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, is skilled at securing rights to a wide variety of cameo spots, from King Kong to Chucky, from Harley Quinn to Speed Racer, from the Harryhausen Cyclops to the ’66 Batmobile – though the Lego Batman Movie, also from Warners, arguably made more use of a universe-meld which could pit Batman against Dracula and the Daleks. Also, inevitably, there are exclusions – this is a nightmare future for the Empire podcast crew, in which Marvel Comics (and movies) have been obliterated from memory, even as folk dress up as Buckaroo Banzai or namedrop The Dark Crystal.
Given all this, it’s still a thrill ride, even if overlong at two hours and twenty minutes. Spielberg has spent the better part of a decade on middlebrow, fairly po-faced subjects like War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies and The Post … so he probably felt it was time to show off his sense of wonder again, and just enjoy himself. This is the next-gen TRON or Matrix that the actual sequels to those tentpoles didn’t manage to be, seamlessly blending realworld and pixels – as born-to-be-a-winner kid Wade (Tye Sheridan) hooks up with traditional more competent sidekick Samantha (Olivia Cooke) and ethnic pal Aech (Lena Waithe) to ace a trio of challenges that defeat a huge corporate army of avatar warriors and backroom geeks who are out to take over the OASIS by winning a game Halliday has left behind. One especially cringe-making description of this is that it does for gamers what Black Panther did for black people – though, as usual, there’s a tension between the grown-up impulse to tell kids to unplug and go play outside in the real world and the fact that this whole film is predicated on jacking in and letting robo-carnage rip in high-speed battle scenarii. Mendelsohn, who’s lately been evil in Star Wars and Batman projects, is a sleekly nasty suit, and dumb enough to leave his password scribbled down and taped to his high-tech VR chair, but he is most fun when bantering with his in-OASIS goon I-R0k (T.J. Miller) and realworld hit lady Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen).
The Steven Spielberg who casts a bigger cultural shadow in modern cinema than John Halliday – a man who has presumably never even aspired to make game equivalents of Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan – does in the fictional world unleashes his inner Joe Dante and plays with everybody’s toys. A standout sequence has the adventurers seeking a vital clue inside Kubrick’s The Shining, interacting with Kubrick’s Grady Girls, Room 237 apparition and blood-flood in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid fashion … though, again, it’s an indication of Halliday’s tragic flaws that all he has taken away from the film is an inspiration for a zombie axe attack game which strips The Shining of terror and hurt in favour of big whooshing blades sloshing through the hedge maze and a lot of running and jumping. A big cast finds room for Simon Pegg, Ralph Ineson, Susan Lynch, Clare Higgins (Hellraiser), Sandra Dickinson (Superman 3), Letitia Wright, Freddy Krueger and Marvin the Martian.