I didn't have the happiest of childhoods.
Between the days and weeks and months spent in the hospital trying to survive my birth defect known as spina bifida and the emotional and physical scars left on me and within me as a result of an extended period of childhood sexual abuse, I can't recall many periods of my life when I truly, completely felt like a child.
However, when I hunkered down into my movie theater seats and prepared myself for the latest world created by Steven Spielberg I could, at least least for a little while, escape from the world I knew and enter into a world where I could feel innocent and whole, filled with wonder and believing in all the magnificence of the universe. Films like E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and others companioned me through my adolescent years and allowed me to immerse myself in worlds not far removed from the OASIS, the getaway world created by Spielberg based upon the debut novel by American author Ernest Cline.
Set in Columbus, Ohio, a switch from the novel's Oklahoma City setting, Spielberg's Ready Player One is nearly everything you want a Spielberg film to be and, for those familiar with Cline's novel, nearly everything you'd want a film based upon the novel to be despite the modest deception of a trailer that only begins to hint at the magic that Spielberg has managed to create here.
The film kicks off 27 years from now, an overpopulated dystopia having replaced the world as we know it thanks to bandwidth riots and something called the "corn syrup droughts" that actually sounds kinda cool but probably isn't. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives within an area known as the Stacks, a precariously constructed shantytown built by campervans inexplicably piled on top of one another. Wade escapes, as does nearly everyone, into this virtual world known as the OASIS, a world where anything is possible that was created by Halliday (Mark Rylance), who announces on his deathbed a competition to award his billions and the OASIS to the finder of three keys within this virtual world. Five years later, however, not a single key has been found and many, maybe most have long ago given up the search. Wade, his friends, and others continue searching along with Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), whose role as the film's baddie is obvious from point one even if you're unfamiliar with the novel and even if you've never seen another film in your entire life. He's the CEO of Innovative Online Industries and he continues to be absolutely relentless in his search for the keys, the finding of which would allow him to control the future and make as money money for himself as possible aided by his goon squad, both those who volunteer and those who fall into debt and are forced into one of his labor camps or "loyalty centers" as he calls them.
Ready Player One is a return to the kind of filmmaking that helped make Spielberg a household name, action-packed and heart-centered cinema that is entertaining from beginning to end and refreshingly devoid of the abundant cynicism that is present within so many of today's Hollywood releases. The Ready Player One hints at a massive influx of nostalgia and, yes, there's a massive influx of nostalgia to be found yet it's not nearly as dominant as the trailer might suggest and, in fact, this is one mighty satisfying story that comes to life.
I'm still a little perplexed how Spielberg managed to pull it all off.
The OASIS is visually magnificent, an obviously computer generated world yet a world that is grounded in a real story with real characters and, yes, an abundance of pop culture characters that I dare not name so as not to spoil the surprise. From extended appearances to "blink and you'll miss it" cameos, Ready Player One took me back to those childhood days while also keeping me surprisingly comfortable in the here and now.
The relationship between Wade/Parzival and Samantha/Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) is front and center in Ready Player One, a believable connection that gives the film its Spielbergian heart. If there's a character that feels a tad off it's Ben Mendelsohn's Sorrento, a blandish performance not going very far with a baddie who never really registers. Truthfully, it's a relatively minor quibble really.
Most filmmakers fail miserably when trying to meld together both real and fantasy worlds, yet this is truly where Spielberg reminds us of his extraordinary talent that seemingly never subsides for the 71-year-old director who still makes films like he's a little kid sitting in the front row ready for magic to happen.
Magic does, indeed, happen in Ready Player One even if the film runs a tad too long and the third act gets just a little sluggish. Ready Player One is, indeed, the most magical film we've seen from Spielberg in years and that's coming from one of the truly big fans of the criminally underrated The BFG. While it's been a blast watching Spielberg become one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in contemporary film, the simple truth is I've quietly lamented the loss of this Spielberg, the master filmmaker with the heart of a childhood who could perfectly construct breathtaking action and childlike imagine all in one and who took my own childhood, a childhood filled with medical struggles and unfathomable violence, and create safe worlds where I could find peace and hope and fun and innocence and belief.
I loved Ready Player One and I can't wait to see it again.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic