Inside everyone’s head is a toy box. It’s full of pop culture all jumbled together, with heroes, monsters, badass vehicles, and cool-as-hell songs all occupying the same space.
Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (out March 30) is a lot like that, except the nerve center packed with sci-fi lore, old video games, TV characters, and the super sounds of yesteryear is actually a virtual-reality program called the OASIS.
In the year 2045, anyone can dive into this digital geekdom. Anyone can be anything, although most people’s fantasies aren’t about trying to be sleek or cool. They’re about being retro. Want to look like He-Man while driving Stephen King’s Christine in a race against the van from The A-Team and the Winnebago starship from Spaceballs while rocking out to the prog rock of Rush? Done.
“There are so many more compelling reasons to escape into the OASIS than exist in real life,” Spielberg tells EW about his dystopian adventure, which is based on the 2011 novel by Ernest Cline. “A lot of our movie is a comparative study: Which world would they rather spend their lives in — with all the distractions and complexities and perks of the digital world of the OASIS, or with the responsibilities of being a student or a parent living in real life? It’s real life versus virtual life. Which is more compelling?”
Virtual life is definitely more fun. Too fun, in fact.
In the story of Ready Player One, 70 percent of the population lives entirely online. So the problems of the actual planet have only deepened because of neglect. That apathy has sunk the planet further into poverty, despair, and disrepair. Many people live in Stacks, which are skyscraper slums made out of old trailers welded together in Jenga-like towers.
Why worry about your home when you can live in a castle in the digital world? Why take care of anything, even yourself? “People are only returning to the real world to eat a sandwich and to go to the bathroom,” Spielberg says.
And to take a shower. Maybe.
“Or maybe not take a shower!” he says with a laugh “Nobody can smell you in the virtual world. If you stay there long enough you won’t offend anyone!”
In the image above (click here for the high-res version), we see one such obsessive, Wade Watts (played by Tye Sheridan) emerging from the abandoned van he uses as a home base for his OASIS gear, complete with a stationary bike for generating power and papered with articles and lore about his tech-pioneering hero: The creator of the OASIS.
He’s researching this iconic programmer because the foundations of the digital world have become threatened. It’s all a question of who owns the rights to this pop-culture rich virtual territory.
And who controls entry?
The creator of the OASIS is — or was — a generous, Willy Wonka-ish entrepreneur named James Halliday (Bridge of Spies Oscar winner Mark Rylance). But Halliday is no more. He has ceased to be. He is an ex-genius tech CEO. He’s undoubtedly dead, but his digital ghost is revealing clues to his postmortem puzzle: an Easter-egg hunt through his online universe.
The person who solves the three puzzles will win the keys to his kingdom. The impoverished, virtual-reality-addicted masses of the world are all racing to take possession — but so are the ruthless corporate drones of IOI, a rival company that would like to seize the open forum of the OASIS and begin restricting access to only those who can pay, and pay mightily.
On one side stands the clever nobody Wade, whose online avatar Parzival becomes the top contender to solve Halliday’s riddles. But he is being targeted by IOI head Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who thinks if the OASIS had a pricier barrier to entry the younger generation might be forced to care more about fixing their broken reality.
But Sorrento doesn’t play fair. If he can’t beat the egg hunters in the fake world, he might just figure out who they are and end them the old-fashioned way. “They do come after you, and that’s when our case spills over into the real world,” Spielberg says. “Our major characters, they are in mortal jeopardy.”
Above, you see Wade on the street outside the Stacks that he calls home — just as a bomb blast rips through them. (High-res version here.) The scene, lifted straight from Cline’s novel, is the first sign Wade gets that this hunt for Halliday’s clues is not really a game. It’s actual life and death.
And the people who know he’s ahead of them in the race are ready to take him out by any means they can.
The digital versions of the characters were performed through motion capture because they are more colorful and dynamic than any real-world person could be. Sheridan says Spielberg told him to play the two halves of Wade as different people — at least at first.
“[Parzival] is a bit more confident than Wade. It’s a nice little contrast between who he is in the OASIS and who he is in the real world,” the actor says. “When we first meet Parzival, he wins the first race and his avatar becomes this celebrity within the OASIS. But [Wade] is an outcast and an underdog in the real world, and no one knows that he’s actually Parzival. It’s almost like a Clark Kent thing, where he’s someone super, but no one knows about it.”
Here we see Wade Watts as Parzival, whose name is inspired by Percival, one of the knights of the round table from Arthurian legend. (Note the sword on his jacket in the high-res version.)
In this sequence, Parzival is researching a clue by examining virtual-reality archival footage of James Halliday (center, behind the glass) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg, far right, wearing a visor) as they create their online wonderland.
To the left is an OASIS librarian — The Curator. To his right, Wade is joined in his quest by Art3mis, who is basically a warrior-goddess who rides the motorcycle from the 1989 anime film Akira and has an equally formidable knowledge of all things nostalgic.
In real life, she’s a young woman named Samantha, who loves her adventures in the OASIS but is still aware of how participation in the real world atrophies when too much time is spent in the digital realm. In the scene below, we see the scales fall from her eyes as she looks over a real-life version of an epic online battle.
“My character has stumbled on to the street where she’s seeing all of these people in their work clothes, all ages, all ethnicities who are getting together and locked in their visors. They’re having a huge war, this rampage,” she says. (High-res version here.)
On one hand, it’s inspiring to see so many people united in common cause. On the other, it’s disturbing to see so many lost in another world. Within the OASIS, this is a scene of carnage, but in our world, it looks like the strangest, most uncoordinated Thriller dance ever performed.
The perpetual distraction and escapism of Ready Player One‘s universe is not that far removed from the here and now.
“We’re starting to see people are more locked into their phones than looking up and interacting with people,” Cooke says. “In 2045, there is world famine, there is world war, and the cost of a plane ticket, travel, and of living life to a high standard in reality has gotten so exorbitant that the only form of escape for them is to log into an alternate reality. “
With that in mind, Cooke says Samantha’s alter ego Art3mis isn’t so separate from her virtual identity.
“Art3mis is something of a legend,” Cooke says. “She is known for being tough, fearless, and confident. I feel like Samantha is that as well. There’s really no differentiation. She prides herself on being true to the core.”
To borrow a line from 1995’s Clueless: “To thine own self be true.”* Spielberg says he felt like Ready Player One did that for him, too.
“It was a very active flashback for me,” he says. “It was like getting into a time machine and getting back to the ’80s and making a movie again.”
*I know. It’s a joke.