This weekend at San Diego Comic-Con, Steven Spielberg unveiled the first glimpse of Ready Player One, at once a valentine to ’80s pop culture and a cautionary tale about the addictiveness of virtual reality. The teaser trailer revealed dynamic action, kinetic visuals, and more Easter eggs than Thornton’s in April. This is what we know so far….
Set in a dystopian 2046 Ohio, where the poor live in trailers stacked on top of each other, Ready Player One is a treasure hunt inside a virtual reality space called the OASIS where the winner will own the keys to this lucrative digital kingdom.
Created by Steve Jobs-alike James Halliday, the currency in this world is a knowledge of arcane ’80s pop culture history that offers up vital clues to solving its mysteries. It becomes a race against time between a band of tech’n’trivia savvy youths (known as Gunters, a contraction of egg hunters) and a corrupt corporation (whose operatives are called sixers after their six-digit employee numbers) to crack the puzzles and unlock its riches.
Think Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory meets Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. In other words, nerd nirvana. Or nerdvana.
Ready Player One is the brainchild of Ernest Cline, an unofficial God amongst geeks. A former spoken word poet — his works include ‘Nerd Porn Auteur’ and ‘Dance Monkey’ — Cline’s 1998 screenplay Fanboys about a group of kids who try to break into Skywalker Ranch to steal The Phantom Menace, later made into a sweet film for the Weinstein Company.
After a bidding war, Ready Player One was published in 2011. It is now on its 17th paperback reprint. Mirroring the action of the film, the hardback and paperback editions both contained Easter eggs that would lead to a series of video game tests leading to the grand prize of a 1981 DeLorean. It was won by Craig Queens who, via the gift of time travel, now owns 38 DeLoreans and a Sports Almanac.
Yet even for die-hard fans of the book, the film will offer something new. As actor Mark Rylance, who plays James Halliday, told Vanity Fair recently, the book “has a lot of puzzles and keys that the characters have to figure out, and Steven has introduced new puzzles and keys so that the people who read the book will still not know how it’s going to work out. It’s a marvelous story with twists and turns and many thrilling moments.”
Warner Bros. snapped up the movie rights to the books before it was even published. Spielberg, an early adopter of games in the early ’80s using Pac-Man as a way to bond with the cast of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, is almost too on the nose as a directorial choice. The book is peppered with references to his own work — the hero derides all the Indiana Jones sequels after the ‘holy trilogy’ — meaning the director worked hard to ensure the film isn’t narcissistic.
“I cut out a lot of my own references out,” he has said. “I was very happy to see there was enough there without me that made the ’80s a great to time to grow up.”
The film shot in the UK last summer at Leavesden Studios and, as befits a dystopian decrepit, washed out universe, Birmingham.
As the young hero Wade Watts, who enters the OASIS under the handle Parzival (a digital take on Percival, a knight of the round table), Spielberg chose Tye Sheridan, best known for The Tree Of Life, Mud and playing Cyclops in X-Men Apocalypse.
Parzival is aided and abetted on his mission by Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, the dying girl from Me And Earl From The Dying Girl), Aech (Master Of None’s Lena Waithe) and i-ROK, a character not in the book played by Silicon Valley’s TJ Miller who describes the character as a “mildly amusing Boba Fett.”
Current Spielberg muse Rylance (Oscar winner for Bridge Of Spies, The BFG) is Halliday and Simon Pegg plays his partner in crime Ogden Morrow.
The villain of the piece is — surprise, surprise—Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One) who plays the brilliantly monickered Nolan Sorrento (“The name does half the work for you,” he quipped): Sorrento is the chief egg hunter for I0I (Innovative Online Industries) who leads the army of sixers that are seen getting into their cars on a hunt for clues in the trailer.
The Easter Eggs
Only a filmmaker with the clout of Spielberg could pull the disparate IP together into one film (remember this man got Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny in the same frame for Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Following the Comic-Con premiere, the internet enjoyed a field day combing through the trailer looking for pop culture jewels to which to show off their geekology.
So, in an electric purple night club, look out for DC’s Harley Quinn and Deathstroke, plus Gandalf from Lord Of The Rings dancing in the air at Morrow’s birthday party.
The trailer also sees Aech, in the form of a muscle bound hardman, take down not only Freddy Kruger from Nightmare On Elm Street but also videogame tough guy Duke Nukem. Proceeding this is Napoleon riding a metallic scorpion into battle against the ostriches from the ’80s video game Joust.
Yet perhaps the biggest geekgasm comes in a literal race through a virtual New York. Look out for the A-Team van, the killer Plymouth Fury from Stephen King’s Christine, the Interceptor from Mad Max, Monster Truck Bigfoot and Art3mis on the red motorbike ridden by the character Kaneda in anime classic Akira, replete with the red ‘Atari’ on the wheels. There’s also a hidden QR code on the bonnet of one of the crashed vehicles which takes you to a website for Innovative Online Industries – how deep the rabbit hole goes we’re not quite sure as yet.
Spielberg has also changed some of the novel’s pop culture nuances, presumably for rights issues. In the novel Parzival gets around in an X-wing; here he zips about in a DeLorean form the Spielberg produced Back To The Future. Also, on the page, Parzival is accompanied by the humungous Japanese robot Ultraman — here his guardian is the Iron Giant from the Brad Bird/WB film. While it gives all the feels, it is perhaps a little late —1999 — to fit in with the ’80s vibe. Still Spielberg confirmed at Comic-Con that the Iron Giant is “a real major player in the story”.
Even the music in the trailer is leaving nostalgic breadcrumbs. The first half is an orchestral variation on the song ‘Pure Imagination’ from the 1971 film version of Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. The second half is scored by ‘Tom Sawyer’ by Canadian prog rockers Rush, who happen to be Parzival’s favourite band.
Ready Player One opens on 30 March. If for no other reason, see it for TJ Miller’s hard-sell: “It’s more accurate than Lawnmower Man.”