Ready Player One: Spielberg’s Retro Blockbuster Explores a Tech-Heavy Future

Humans have always looked for escape, Steven Spielberg says.

Before the director was born, it was radio. Television was invented when he was a kid.

“I watch my own kids today and they all kind of are in mini Oases because they are buried in their devices,” he says.

The next great leap in the technology of living outside of ourselves will be virtual reality, the 71-year-old believes.

And he should know

He has made a career — and a very lucrative one at that — of letting regular people battle great white sharks (Jaws), interact with beings from other worlds (E.T.), hunt down ancient relics (Raiders of the Lost Ark), and experience, from the safety of a dark theatre, the misery of human conflict (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Lincoln).

With his latest work, he has gone meta — a piece of escapism about the experience of escapism.

Crowds of people wearing VR headsets

Ready Player One, adapted from the Earnest Cline novel, takes place in 2045, when humans spend most of their time in a simulated world, called the Oasis, because overpopulation has made our regular one pretty uncomfortable.

The world’s creator, James Halliday, a rock star of the geek world, has died and left his (extremely valuable) invention to whomever can follow a series of clues and find, hidden somewhere in the Oasis, a golden egg.

Ohio teenager Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan, and his friends set out to find the egg and keep the Oasis — a place where you live through your avatar — free.

Of course, this being a Hollywood recreation of a sci-fi novel littered with pop culture references, there’s an evil corporation — run by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) — that also wants the egg, so it can control and monetise this immersive world.

The difficulties of making a half-real, half-animated movie

To create the scenes inside the Oasis, where Sheridan’s character goes by the avatar Parzival, the actor had to wear a motion-capture costume covered in sensors that tracked his movements.

That can make it a little difficult to get into the headspace of the character, particularly when there are other actors involved, he told an audience at a recent screening.

Boy in VR headset inside truck

From Spielberg’s perspective, there are pros and cons.

“Because you are really looking at someone that looks like they are landing on Mars,” he said.

“When Tye and Olivia [Cooke, who plays Art3mis] were doing the zero-gravity dance, [it was a] very romantic scene — that was the intention — but when we watched it being put together it was almost like a comedy of errors.”

Still, for Sheridan, the experience was also freeing, “because you get to revert back to a place where you are your most imaginative and uninhibited” — an actor forced to conjure up not just their character’s inner life, but the outer one, too.

The film was one of the longest projects Spielberg has been involved with, largely because of the time it took the roughly 900 artists involved to create the animated Oasis.

“Character artists, background artists, landscapes — artists that did nothing but focus on the details to make the Oasis seem utterly real,” the director said.

It was three years from when he first read the script to the first screenings of the film.

Working with a Hollywood heavyweight

For such a young actor, 21-year-old Sheridan has an impressive CV:

  • The Oscar-nominated The Tree Of Life, alongside Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn
  • Mud, alongside Matthew McConaughey
  • Joe, alongside Nicolas Cage
  • The Forger, alongside John Travolta

Still, working with Spielberg was huge.

“The first time I met Steven, I was auditioning with Olivia Cooke, who was already cast, and I didn’t know if I was going to get cast in the movie — I thought it was a pretty long shot,” Sheridan told triple j Breakfast’s Ben and Liam.

“So, I wanted to thank Steven for the films that he made, and I told him that he was one of my heroes.

“I think without his movies I wouldn’t be the same kid I am today. He’s influenced so many lives out there. Not many people don’t know this guy’s work.”

He said he learned a lot working with Spielberg on the four-month shoot. As for how to describe their relationship, he defers to co-star Lena Waithe.

“She said ‘he’s a giant that doesn’t make you feel small’,” Sheridan said.

“I thought that was the coolest thing.

“It’s true: you walk onto a set, and the energy, what he gives to you, somehow eliminates everything you know about him, and the only thing that’s existing is the relationship that’s going on presently between you and him.”

The film goes heavy on pop culture references

In the Oasis, pop culture smarts are crucial. The nerd is king.

Want to score that egg? You’ve got to know how to navigate the mansion from The Shining and outmanoeuvre King Kong in your DeLorean.

This splashing about in nostalgia for the 1980s has been a point of criticism for the book and the film.

“Whip off the tablecloth of references, and underneath is a blank surface,” Paul Verhoeven wrote on this website, arguing the film struggled under the weight of its cultural touchpoints.

Girl in VR headset and teenage boy

A piece by Constance Grady on Vox suggested those touchpoints, in the book, acted as a barrier to entry, an attempt at keeping nerd culture pure that would later reach its ugly zenith with the #gamergate controversy.

But Spielberg sees a brighter side to our desire to rediscover those pop culture icons.

“I think we are nostalgic for the 80s because it was a stress-free decade,” he said.

“Everything was sort of innocuous — style, music. We had an actor as a president, and he was actually articulate and made sense.

“I think with what’s happening in the world right now, and even when [Cline] wrote the book … we feel that there have been times in the past that the present forces us to return to.”

Could the desire for escape be unhealthy?

For all the adventure of the Oasis, and the possibilities for escape it presents, the film takes a cautionary tone when it comes to the future of virtual reality.

At the screening, Sheridan and Spielberg offered similarly tempered views.

Sheridan loves the technology — he co-founded a VR start-up years ago, before getting involved with the film — and Spielberg said he saw a future, not unlike in the film, in which virtual reality could be a more active and communal experience than present-day social media.

But, Spielberg said, “everything in moderation”.

“I also think … [virtual reality] is a place that we may not want to leave — and that’s where it becomes a dangerous place. It almost becomes a super drug.”

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