Plot Summary (contains spoilers)
Welcome to Columbus, Ohio. The year is 2045, and the deleterious effects of overpopulation, climate change, and political corruption have become every-day life for the citizens of this city. The slums where our protagonist, Wade Watts a.k.a. Parzival, lives look literally like trailers thrown carelessly on top of one another. To escape this gloomy life, the citizens of Ohio have turned to OASIS, a virtual reality simulator in the style of an MMORPG video game, where they spend most of their free time.
OASIS was created by James Halliday, an eccentric game designer/programmer obsessed with 80s pop culture, who is in turn worshiped by the OASIS community. Before his death in 2040 , Halliday revealed that he’d hidden an Easter Egg inside OASIS, promising that whoever finds it will receive a large monetary prize and control of OASIS. This involves 3 nearly impossible challenges to obtain 3 keys that give one access to the Easter Egg. Those who devote their time and effort to this grueling hunt are called Gunters (from Egg hunters), a group that includes our protagonist, Parziva, and his friends – referred as the ‘High Five’ team.
The first challenge is winning an almost unbeatable race. The second challenge involves going through the horrors of the 1980 film, The Shining, to find a simulation of Halliday’s lost love and regret. The third challenge is to find an Easter Egg (the first ever) hidden in the classic 1980 Atari game, Adventure. Successfully completing these challenges requires a detailed understanding of Halliday’s life and obsession for 80s pop culture.
In addition to the High Five team, Innovative Online Industries (acronym IOI) , a large manufacturer of VR ‘equipment,’ is also seeking to find Halliday’s Easter Egg and gain control of OASIS in order to maximize their profits (and for their CEO, Nolan Sorrento, to settle a personal vendetta). IOI employs a vast number of resources to complete the challenges, even resorting to morally questionable or outright illegal actions. They have a practice of coercing indebted citizen to play for them.
Despite IOI’s advantage in the game, Parziva manages to stay one step ahead of them and successfully completes all three challenges (including a finale where he summons what seems like the entire population of OASIS to his aid). Nolan Sorrento is arrested for attempting to shoot Wade (in the real world), a Wade gains control of OASIS.
While the film is set in a gloomy, possibly dystopian future (though one that may very easily become a reality), its real focus is the pinnacle of technological achievement that is OASIS. Halliday’s invention is much more than a video game. It’s an alternative life (a second life, one might say if that wasn’t trademarked), one that has taken over the ‘real’ world to a degree that is both comical and melancholy. In one short scene, relatively early in the film, we see a mother thoroughly engrossed in her game, ignoring her child’s screams about a burning meal on the stove. Later, we see every single person in the streets of Columbus wearing the OASIS visor. It seems that no one would ever leave OASIS if they could help it.
OASIS has restructured the entire socioeconomic system of the United States, possibly the World – although to what degree, we don’t know – and this is the setting’s most important implication. The inhabitants of the city care more about their in-game avatars than their real lives, from which they seek to escape. What they’re worth, or what they feel they’re worth, is judged in the OASIS. The in-game coins that users acquire doing various activities inside the simulation have acquired actual and tangible value in society. Corporations like IOI are making immense profits on products that don’t exist except in the OASIS. Of course, anyone aware with our current economic paradigm won’t find this that much of a stretch from the present.
Unfortunately, Ready Player One barely glosses over these themes and misses a golden opportunity to explore them further. We only get glimpses of what the real world is like. Presented with something as revolutionary as the OASIS, we are deprived of any meaningful philosophical or sociological insight about the real effects on Human life. Instead, after 2 hours of literal worship for this virtual world, the film slaps us in the face with the insultingly simple message that ‘reality is better.’ In other words, Ready Player One fails to live up to its potential.
The focus of the story rests primarily on the simple adventure story involving the hunt of the Easter Eggs, the romance between Parziva and Art3mis, and to a lesser extent, the past life of James Halliday (this only insomuch as it serves the adventure story). And of course, it does works on that simple level, if one forgoes any serious scrutiny. The conflicts are sufficient to drive the story forward while keeping the audience engaged. Spielberg indeed delivers a thrilling movie, albeit still relying on the use of cliché and tiresome character tropes – the young noble hero from the slums, the vindictive upper-class villain, the misunderstood and overly romanticized genius – things we’ve seen countless times before. Halliday could have stood out perhaps, though his treatment is superficial, and any good that comes out of him is solely due to Mark Rylance’s performance rather than the script. Wade and his crew, on the other hand, are quite forgettable.
A saving grace for the film were the phenomenal action sequences and special effects – something that won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Steven Spielberg’s talent for such things. The pop-culture references, though abundant, are kept at bay. Those who recognize the references may find them exciting, and those who don’t will find them inconsequential. Fortunately, they don’t get into the way of the main narrative.
So, is Ready Player One worth a watch? I think so. Despite its shortcomings, despite failing to appeal on an intellectual level as good sci-fi should, despite the certain implausibilities of the OASIS system (e.g. that they have to do manual labor when everything is just computer code), it still is a fun and entertaining movie.