By: Kevin Jordan
If you are not a fan of CGI and think that CGI is ruining film, Ready Player One might kill you. At the very least, it will give you an aneurism or a stroke. Possibly both. If so, you deserve it. I am not quite ready to devote my year-end review to all of the incessant whining about the use of CGI in movies, but I am seriously thinking about it. CGI is one of those topics that film snobs love to use as an excuse for hating some movies, right alongside with “there is no more creativity in Hollywood.” Forget about the fact that CGI has allowed us to realize hundreds of movies and tens of thousands of elements within movies that would otherwise be impossible. Could you imagine how stupid Spider-Man would look if all of his web-slinging was done via wire-work? Oh, right, they tried that on Broadway. I rest my case.
My point is if there is one thing Ready Player One has a ton of it is CGI. My greater point is that Ready Player One could not be made without a ton of CGI. Nearly the entire movie takes place in a virtual simulation called the OASIS where anyone can be anything or have anything they want. Want to race through a city in an exact replica of Doctor Brown’s Delorian while dodging a rampaging T-Rex? Want to be seen as a nine-foot tall warlock or the Iron Giant? Want to pilot Mechagodzilla while fighting an army on a planet called Doom? None of that is happening without a lot of help from computers. And if it is, it probably looks terrible.
Having read and loved the book of the same title, I was terrified that the movie was going to be a disappointment. Mostly, because I managed to see multiple previews at other screenings, but also because with great CGI comes great responsibility. Happily, the effects of the movie are fantastic, as well they should be given the $175 million budget of the film, but also because director Steven Spielberg is a genius. Everything felt like it had depth and texture and nothing felt flat. One great example is an early race scene that manages to feel claustrophobic and tense, even though it is happening on open streets and is nothing more than pixels, even for the characters. At no point did I ever feel like the visuals were just throwing ones and zeroes at me in attempt to overwhelm my senses. I even appreciated the 3-D effects, which I normally hate, despite the arms of the cheap 3-D glasses jabbing me in the side of the head.
The film also stays fairly faithful to the source material, in no small part aided by the author (Ernest Cline) co-writing the screenplay (with Zak Penn). If you have not read the book (do it now), the main plot is a treasure hunt within the OASIS, a hunt designed by the creator of the OASIS, the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Competitors must solve three puzzles (including discovering the location of the puzzles) to obtain three keys, which will unlock an Easter Egg hidden in the OASIS. Whoever finds the Egg gets full control of the OASIS and inherits Halliday’s half-trillion dollar fortune. The details of the puzzles vary between the film and the book, but the structure remains intact.
Naturally, everyone is trying to win the game, but nobody has figured out how to complete the first puzzle. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a.k.a. Parzival is a Gunter – players who spend all of their time hunting for the egg – and also knows virtually everything about Halliday and the things Halliday liked (movies, video games, music, etc.). This knowledge eventually leads him to crack the mystery of the puzzle and put him on the radar of everyone in the world, including Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI) and all-around jerk-off. Sorrento has tasked an army of indentured servants (people who have accrued debt within the OASIS) with winning Hallday’s Egg in order to assume control of the OASIS and monetize the crap out of it. If you are any kind of gamer, even the kind that plays Candy Crush on your iPhone, you would hate this guy because he is the one advocating for inserting ads and incorporating microtransactions into games (think freemium games where there are things you can only get if you pay actual money for, but the game itself is free). He will stop at nothing to win the game, including kidnapping and murder, but excluding actually playing the game himself. In other words, he is the guy who buys a game, then buys the walkthrough guide for the game so he can get to the end without effort. What kind of loser does that?
Along the way, Parzival joins forces with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), and two other kids (Philip Zhao and Win Morisaki) whose characters are so underdeveloped they are literally just avatars. Together, they try to solve the remainder of the puzzles, but not before Art3mis welcomes Parzival into “the rebellion.” This rebellion Art3mis is referring to is a group of people trying to stop IOI from taking over the OASIS because IOI will wreck the openness/freedom of the OASIS by indebting more people and creating a class structure of the haves and have nots. If you get this from the film, it is only because you read the book, as the film only occasionally mentions such social issues. If there is one criticism I have of this otherwise excellent movie it is that the film has plenty of CGI, but none of the book’s balls.
One of the highlights of the book is the way that Cline was able to focus on social issues through the lens of the OASIS like income disparity, class separation, and the inability of poorer classes to improve their standing in life. Whenever the film seems to be ready to make some real social commentary, it shies away from the conversation and distracts the viewer with action and adventure. For example, book-Parzival talks about how it is nearly impossible for him to compete for Halliday’s prize because he does not have money to pay for transit to other worlds. Like with our freemium games, real money is used to purchase power-ups and Parzival has no real money. By finding the first key first, he gains instant fame and earns money through endorsements, allowing him to better compete, but also that a poor guy suddenly has lots of cash. The book explores how money opens doors and effects people and makes the reader think about that with regards to people in the lower classes. I am not saying the film should go deep-diving into social commentary, but those elements were key in developing Parzival and his character arc in the book, and film-Parzival was noticeably shallower. But, then Parzival and Art3mis get into a shootout while dancing in a zero-G club and deep thoughts are forgotten.
Having said that, it was refreshing to see Spielberg jump back into directing a big, fun, blockbuster flick and knock it out of the park. His handling of the CGI was near perfect (and props to all of his effects folks and cinematographers). Perhaps the most fun thing is that the movie is stuffed full of pop-culture references from the late 1970s to now (reportedly, acquiring licensing for all of it took years) and all of them are fun and well incorporated. My personal favorite is a small one from a movie called Krull and if my brother had been with me, we would have high-fived over it (if you spot it, please, please comment as proof that more than two people have seen Krull). We also would have high-fived about the CGI because this movie would have sucked without it. If you still hate CGI after this film, I will still call you an ambulance because you deserve it.
Rating: Do not ask for any money back and spend more for the book.