What do you expect the world to be like in 2045? You might imagine, given the pretty dystopian terms in which we already speak of the years ahead, that it might be pretty badly beaten-up.
However, the two seemingly cataclysmic events merely referred-to in passing in Ready Player One – the “corn syrup droughts” and the “bandwidth riots” – might not have been the causes you’d imagined.
Escaping the slums of mid-21st century Ohio
Anyway, imagine that in the intervening time, Ohio’s state capital and most populous city – Columbus – has been rendered a grim favela of trailers mounted on top of each other, a world in which the drudgery of the slums drives the remaining citizens to hook themselves on escapism.
Such escapism is provided by the alternate wholly virtual reality world known as the Oasis, in which most of the population live their lives, generally play-acting and mashing together favourite elements of 20th-century pop culture.
Those references, by the way, are truly teeming, encompassing everything from King Kong, the Tyrannosaurus rex from Jurassic Park and Marty McFly’s Back to the Future DeLorean to a soundtrack covering such ‘70s and ‘80s touchstones as George Michael’s “Faith” and Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover”.
A high-octane chase for the keys to the Oasis
The heavyweight-of-all-heavyweights reputation of producer and director Steven Spielberg was undoubtedly instrumental in securing the necessary rights for the scores of references to films, television shows, movies and other media littered throughout Ready Player One, which is based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel of the same name.
It’s a suitably Spielbergian cast, too, headed by Tye Sheridan, who plays Wade Watts, very much the kind of determined, single-minded male lead to whom we have become accustomed across the director’s epics ranging from E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial (Henry Thomas) to Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford).
Contributing a performance of vital quiet and humanity in an otherwise top-speed, overwhelming universe is Mark Rylance as James Halliday, the celebrated but socially awkward Willy Wonka-meets-Steve Jobs-like figure who was the creator of the Oasis, but is already dead as the film’s story begins.
Nonetheless, Halliday has left behind quite the enticing ‘Easter egg’: the opportunity for a mere mortal to take the helm of his trillion-dollar empire and rule the Oasis. All that players need to do is complete the dizzying treasure-hunt that stands between them and this most seemingly unobtainable of honours.
This double-life romp may be worth a second helping
Ready Player One therefore revolves around the two separate worlds of ‘reality reality’ and ‘virtual reality’, as while immersed in the latter, such ‘gunters’ – or egg-hunters – as Watts, Samantha Cook (played by Olivia Cooke), Helen Harris (Lena Waithe) and Toshiro (Win Morisaki) race for the literal keys to the Oasis.
All the while, these heroes of humble origin are forced to look over their shoulders for any signs of chilling corporate villain Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and his massive army of mercenaries, who have their own designs on exploiting the Oasis for profit.
It all adds up to a searing and ever-stimulating adventure, albeit one also occasionally too slick for its own good, that falls tantalisingly short of timelessly transcending its rich seam of source material.