However last Monday, I headed to Cineworld on Broadstreet for a preview of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. This was made possible by Film Birmingham – Birmingham City Council’s film office who enables accessible and effective ways for production within Birmingham, ‘done through a number of free services available to the film and television industry including locations and crews as well as filming permissions.’
Film Birmingham has been a supporter and developer of film and TV since 2006, and embodies the rich history of cinema dating back to 1863 whilst connecting Birmingham productions to the wider UK film industry. They also support film events and industry screenings, which is what led me to being packed into Screen 10 of Cineworld instead of curled up at home. You can tell, even before the lights go down and the screen comes to life, that this is something special – whether it’s just the opportunity to preview a high profile film from the comfort of our home city, or the fact that some of Ready Player One’s landscapes were handpicked from right here in Birmingham.
Ready Player One is an adaption of Ernest Cline’s bestselling novel of the same name, and it seems only fitting that Steven Spielberg directs as the novel incorporates a hefty amount of 1980’s references – a time where Spielberg arguably conquered the industry, directing and producing films from E.T. to The Colour Purple. And Ready Player One doesn’t waste time in transferring this nostalgic vibe, opening with Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ and automatically engrossing the audience; the whole soundtrack is perfectly curated to reflect the imagery and content – vital in supporting any film, but especially one interweaving so much popular culture. There’s even a DeLorean.
Ready Player One follows Wade Watts (a superhero sounding reference that he doesn’t fail to mention when introducing himself) played by Tye Sheridan, most recognisable as Ellis from Mud and Scott Summers from X-Men: Apocalypse. Wade is orphaned, living with his Auntie and her partner in a trailer park in Columbus, Ohio – in a future that doesn’t seem too far removed from modern day, but where its occupants spend most of their time immersed in a virtual reality world called OASIS. OASIS offers salvation in this arguably desolate 2045 landscape by allowing the player to take on any reality-defying form they wish, and was created by the eccentric and off-centre mogul James Halliday (Mark Rylance). But there’s a further incentive in OASIS than just escape; before his death Halliday hid ‘Easter eggs’ within the virtual world, and whoever finds them first will inherit his fortune. And so ensues a world-wide race to do just that.
Spielberg has previously stated that as he has grown older he feels ‘a deeper responsibility to tell stories that have some kind of social meaning’, with this ideology being perfectly evident in Ready Player One. The film is set amidst the future of technology and the popularisation of virtual reality, something currently capitalised on within modern society now more than ever.
As a subject for filmmakers and storytellers, virtual reality is increasingly interesting to explore – the possibilities, scenarios and outcomes of a virtual world are endless and limited only by imagination. Plus, as a modern society, with we can plausibly picture ourselves there in the not too-distant future, right alongside those entering OASIS or being captivated by the advancement of technology. Spielberg successfully shows the juxtaposition, yet balance, of physical Vs virtual domains and how slowly but surely the latter is beginning to outweigh the former.
You can’t fault the conventions of Ready Player One either; the blockbuster quality is evident, complete with mind-bending car chases, huge sets and beautiful visuals. And whilst the latter were what I found most enjoyable most about the film, you’d expect nothing less than stunning cinematography from a Spielberg production. Ready Player One proffers a dystopian future through carefully curated shots and angles which solidify the setting for the audience. It seems familiar, by incorporating futuristic touches but remaining on the right side of believable – as though you could pass this landscape on your way to work and not bat an eyelid, with the frames of The Stacks (the estate Wade lives in) being amongst my favourite within the film.
Although Ready Player One is a two hour twenty minute action-packed, surreal ride (this is unassailable) I also feel this is where the root of its problems lie. Despite the sheer amount of content packed into the (slightly lengthy) run time, certain concepts, ideas and storylines still feel underdeveloped and overlooked throughout the narrative. This particularly extended to the relationships portrayed within the film; I feel little real connection with any of the characters, not due a narrative intentionally overlooking any emotional development, but because there are simply so many additional plot points needed to complete the main storyline.
This ‘broken spider web syndrome’ seems to be a running theme across Ready Player One; Wade loses his Auntie at the hands of the film’s villain, yet this is never addressed again – other than the scene directly afterwards where he looks fleetingly anguished. Similarly, Samantha (Olivia Cooke, known for her endearing performance in the TV series Bates Motel) explains she wants to win the coveted prize to avenge her father’s death. This makes for an interesting plot point but one that is never further developed and gradually we lose this side of her character, with the focus on her shifting to being solely Watt’s love interest midway through the film.
This, again, is problematic; Watt’s professes his love after a few short scenes of interacting with Samantha’s avatar, Art3mis, with a short, lacklustre conversation, yet still their relationship intensifies. Watt’s then continues to declare his love throughout the film at arguably inappropriate moments, such as when they’re immersed in battle scenes or during the penultimate moments of action. Which although fits conventions – declarations of love before battle scenes – due to an underdeveloped relationship, feels as though it’s just ticking boxes to say ‘yes, this film also has a romantic sub-plot’.
Apart from a deficit in emotional or character development, I feel Ready Player One has another downfall – and perhaps this one isn’t a fault of the filmmakers, as any book to film adaption can bring challenges of staying true to the nuances of the original text. But in Spielberg’s production, the sheer volume of pop culture references don’t translate that effectively to the big-screen. They feel a little forced – not being an undertone or an influence, but more thrown directly and relentlessly at you one after the other.
There is a particular scene where Wade’s avatar, Parzival, is trying on clothes for a date, moving from Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ outfit to Duran Duran-esque costumes; at one point he asks “am I trying too hard?”, which encompasses my feelings on the amount of pop culture that was supposedly a highlight of the film (and the book). And with Spielberg’s work itself being such a strong staple of popular culture, it seems especially off-kilter that his latest production rides so much on other references that felt neither subtle nor natural within the narrative. Apparently this was even argued by the director himself when the aforementioned DeLorean was suggested, with Spielberg finally acquiescing as he was only Back to the Future’s producer.
Despite these points, watching Ready Player One is an engaging experience. But whilst I enjoyed the concept and the exploration of virtual reality, the visuals, and the soundtrack, there were other, more conflicting factors that I couldn’t move past – making the storyline a little confused and ultimately forgettable. It’s been a week since viewing Ready Player One and I struggle to remember some of the names, places, and certain elements of the plot.
Saying this, maybe I’m missing the mark – but this is the appeal of film, hundreds of people can watch the same piece yet it will produce different thoughts and feelings across the aisles. And whilst the knowledge that Steven Spielberg shot aspects of this film here in Birmingham fills me with immense excitement and civic pride, that fact is more alluring to me than the actual on screen content it turned into.
And the Oscar for best Council film development department goes to…
Ready Player One – Official trailer
Ready Player One is out on general release from Wednesday 28th March, being screened daily at Cineworld on Broadstreet. For Ready Player One show times, alongside the cinema’s wider programme, visit www.cineworld.co.uk/cinemas/birmingham-broad-street
For more on Ready Player One, visit www.readyplayeronemovie.com
For more on Film Birmingham, including upcoming projects, visit www.filmbirmingham.co.uk