Review: ‘Ready Player One’ premieres at SXSW 2018

Note: The following review was written without having read Ernest Cline’s novel of the same name prior to the screening.

Living in reality doesn’t seem like the ideal way to go when the option to live in a virtual society is available.

Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” held its world premiere at a packed Paramount Theatre for the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival Sunday night.

Janet Pierson, the festival’s director of film, made the official announcement Saturday, making the screening one of the most highly anticipated events of the week.

The movie, based on Austin-based author Ernest Cline’s 2011 sci-fi novel of the same name, is set in 2045 in Columbus, Ohio. It follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an orphaned teen who lives with his aunt and her boyfriend. The world has experienced climate change, overpopulation, and political discord. Neighborhoods consist of poorly built structures. To escape this environment, people immerse themselves in a virtual reality universe known as the OASIS. At the OASIS, one can live the life they want as an avatar. They can explore different planets, interact with other avatars, and go on quests to collect a prize — which is usually experience, credits and items.

One day, the main creator behind the OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), dies. His cause of death isn’t disclosed, but before he dies, Halliday creates a challenge for OASIS users called “Anorak’s Quest.” The idea is simple: whoever clears all three huge puzzles and collects all three keys, will get access to Halliday’s Easter egg — which includes his fortune and complete control of the OASIS.

When “Ready Player One” begins, it notes that five years have passed since Halliday’s game kicked off. No one has even gotten close to winning the first key. Wade, known by his avatar name Parzival, is one of many in the OASIS still eager to win the ultimate prize, along with his best friend Aech (Lena Waithe). Parzival then befriends Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who also wants to win the challenge, and the two work on solving the riddles Halliday left behind — learning more about the man behind the OASIS along the way.

When Parzival, Art3mis, Aech, and their other two friends Daito (Win Morisaki) and Shoto (Philip Zhao) make headway with the challenge and collect the first two keys, they get the attention of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), a megacorporation led by CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). IOI has its employees, called Sixers, compete in the challenge, in hopes of IOI getting to the treasure first and controlling the OASIS.

Based on visuals alone, “Ready Player One” excels. The CGI used in both the “real world” and especially the OASIS keeps the film’s pace going. Development for special effects took several years to complete, and upon watching “Ready Player One” it completely makes sense. Your eyes just naturally stay focused on the obstacles that are ahead for the protagonists.

The cast also had great chemistry with one another, most notably between the leads, Sheridan and Cooke. Scenes between Mendelsohn’s Nolan Sorrento and his partner-in-crime i-R0k (T.J. Miller), delivered a lot of additional laughs as well.

Fans of 1970s and 80s pop culture, especially those of his films in the 1970s and 80s, will certainly enjoy the Easter eggs. “The Iron Giant,” Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” Godzilla, and of course, one of the most beloved vehicles of all-time, the DeLorean from “Back to the Future,” make appearances in the movie. If you’re a fan of Spielberg’s filmography, you won’t find too many nods to his own work during that time period, but you will be able to spot some of his signature tics, like streams of light and close-up, awestruck faces.

The film is not without its faults, however. While “Ready Player One” does stay true to the theme of escaping into a more desired “reality,” there isn’t a lot of focus on the “real world” backgrounds of each of the characters. All we know from Wade in Columbus, Ohio, is that he lives with his aunt because his parents died and the fact he wears wire-framed glasses. We don’t learn much about Art3mis’s upbringing outside of the OASIS either — she mentions her story briefly to Parzival in an exchange before she leaves him, but it’s hard to miss if you don’t pay attention. The same malady goes for Aech, Daito, and Shoto. A lot of this can be attributed to what normally happens when books are adapted to the big screen: a lot of details get cut. But having better-rounded characters wouldn’t have made the film feel like it was lacking something.

The film also experienced unexpected technical difficulties in the third act — audio didn’t play out when it was supposed to. Staff at the Paramount Theatre quickly tried to restart the movie, but no sound came out even after a second attempt. But as they say, third time’s the charm — and the film resumed with the roaring applause and cheers from the audience. The crowd’s anticipation for the film to finally start up again actually made that slight inconvenience all the more entertaining.

With the entire media buzz surrounding “Ready Player One,” the movie is definitely worth the two-plus hours. Those who have at least had a brief understanding of the plot should see it. Viewers who choose to watch the movie without having read the book, take note — you will feel a sense of not getting all of the references from the novel, and have to pay close attention to what’s happening. For the most part, the screenplay, written by Zak Penn and the book’s author Ernest Cline, does a decent job explaining how Halliday’s challenge works. Some people may feel a desire to read the book after watching the movie to get a clearer sense of what else the “Ready Player One” universe entailed, and that’s highly encouraged.

Based on what viewers in the audience commented after the film ended, some pop culture references don’t make the cut. Several book-purists at the screening said the quests were more condensed as well.

But the overall consensus was overwhelmingly positive — many attendees gave the film a standing ovation. For someone like myself who hadn’t read the book but had high expectations going into the screening, “Ready Player One” was an enjoyable experience.

“Ready Player One” hits theaters March 29.

© 2018 KVUE

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