A rollicking, easter-egg littered crowdpleaser.
Cited in the trailer as the ‘holy grail of pop culture’, Ernest Cline’s 2011 bestselling book captured the imagination of thousands around the world with its endless stream of 80s pop culture references, embodying the spirit of fandom and the craze of wanting to win a game. Spielberg’s adaptation may lose some of the thrill of the source material’s chase, never quite enforcing the urgency of the stakes or the daunting task at hand – but it manages to evoke laughter and cheers, striking a dazzling animated style that packs a visual, jaw-dropping punch.
Set in 2045, a sort of dystopia – not so far from our reach – that has suffered at the hands of tragedies such as the ‘bandwidth riots’ and ‘corn syrup droughts’. Not much is explained about how the world got this way – but it has lead to the erection of shanty town-esque ‘stacks’, rusty camper-vans piled on top of each other, connected by ladders and pipes. In order to escape the lows of reality, people plug into the OASIS – a VR multiplayer gaming behemoth, allowing anyone to be anyone – a tantalising prospect for any geek, none better than the man behind the camera, Steven Spielberg.
The creator of the OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) creates a enigmatic, world-capturing challenge before his death. Inside the OASIS, he has hidden three keys (not just lying around, mind – they are often excruciatingly well hidden); if someone can find them all, they become owners of the OASIS, and the trillion fortune it comes with. That’s where our lead, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), named to sound like a superhero alter-ego, comes in. The film picks up five years after the challenge begins, with Watts, with his OASIS alter-ego Parzival, still trying to get his name on the ever-present empty scoreboard round the globe. He’s not alone – love interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) is in constant pursuit of the prize. There’s also the villainous Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the CEO of the malevolent capitalist nightmare that is Innovative Online Industries (IOI), who have a vast workforce employed to find the key (players call them ‘sixers’ because they’re all ‘just a number’), as well as labour camps, or ‘Loyalty Centres’, where he forces OASIS players in debt to work.
The stakes are clearly pretty high then. But the film doesn’t hit down as hard on the travesty surrounding the contest, nor the events in the film which, at times, have serious real-world consequences beyond a ‘game over’ screen, enough to make us invest in them. Spielberg doesn’t waste too much time trying to establish relationships between every character, with the focus of the piece being on Watts/Parzival, Art3mis and Sorrento.
Every cast member (aside from the deadpan, Ragnarok-reminscent delights of T.J. Miller’s i-R0k), plays up the cheesiness of the material, which although doesn’t hamper the characters too severely, can bring with it a significant degree of cringe. Mendelsohn competently plays a sort of low-key megalomaniac, as he did previously in The Dark Knight Rises and Rogue One. Rylance’s casting adds value, although his role could as easily be played by Tommy Wiseau. Sheridan and Cooke have a lovely chemistry, but their interpretation of certain lines of the script lessen their impact, leaving some more intended-to-be-powerful scenes feeling a bit empty.
But the heart of the movie doesn’t belong to these characters – it belongs to the quest. The hunt for Halliday’s Easter Egg is vastly different to the source material, as to make it a more thrilling watch than the nitty-gritty clue solving of Cline’s game. Switching a cave for a city-wide race that features the DeLorean, the T-Rex from Jurassic Park and King Kong (in one of his most imposing cinematic incarnations) throwing himself across the metropolis, is a move which indicates early on the viewers are in for a rollicking great time.
The film is predominantly set in the world of the OASIS, a computer-generated feast to the eyes that brings an animated style similar to the upcoming Alita: Battle Angel, immediately immersing you in this video-gaming world. There’s a giddy joy to be had watching sequences that feel like a ‘Jackson Pollock’ painting of cameos, scanning your eyes across the wide sequences pointing out characters, which is set to fuel geeky conversations for a very long time. It is over-saturated sure, but that’s part of the fun. This is a one-time deal, so relish in this wet dream of references while you have it.
The highlight of the film comes from a spectacular sequence in The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel, which not only provides a frankly stunning recreation of the traumatic holiday home, but goes to far, far lengths to impress fans. Spielberg’s work may often be rooted in grim realities – for example, War of the Worlds is an action blockbuster yes, but it’s hardly silly; if anything it’s absolutely terrifying. This is Spielberg cutting loose, letting his inner-child run wild with the glee and whimsy of his E.T. and Jurassic Park days, making a film that is both magical and exhilarating. It could be shaved by around 20 minutes across the feature, but for a film that is so purely unconventional, alongside Silvestri’s (who composed the music for Back to the Future) delicate although not overbearing score, this has an undeniable classic touch.