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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Ready Player One is director Steven Spielberg's much-anticipated adaptation of Ernest Cline's near-future sci-fi adventure novel about an avid gamer (Tye Sheridan) who spends most of his time in the Oasis, a virtual reality universe/multi-user game. Expect both virtual (i.e., in the Oasis) and real-life violence, although the movie's real-world violence isn't quite as traumatic as the book's. The in-game action can get pretty intense (especially when seen in 3D) and includes over-the-top shoot-outs (with every kind of weapon imaginable), all-out attacks, large-scale battles, destructive car chases, giant monsters, and a frightening re-creation of a gory horror film that includes ax attacks, zombies, and more. Outside the Oasis, there are assassination attempts, an explosion that kills civilians and destroys homes, forced labor, a car chase, and gun threats. Characters also flirt, kiss, and touch each other suggestively, and there's quite a bit of swearing (mostly "s--t," though there's a memorable use of "f---ing"). Although fans of the book, gamers, and Gen Xers with '80s nostalgia are the most obvious audience, you don't need to have read the book to understand or appreciate the story (in fact, if you haven't read it, you're less likely to be distracted by the massive story changes made for the movie...) and its themes of teamwork, perseverance, and valuing real-life connections.
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What's the story?
Based on Ernest Cline's best-selling 2011 sci-fi novel, READY PLAYER ONE takes place in a dismal 2045, where most people live in squalor, choosing to spend most of their time online in a virtual universe called the Oasis. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in the "Stacks" of Columbus, Ohio -- a tower of mobile homes -- and spends every spare moment logged in. For the past five years, Wade and millions of other dedicated gamers have been hunting obsessively for an elusive Easter egg left hidden in the game's code by its late creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). To find the egg, gamers must find three keys and pass through three gates, where their skills will be tested. The winner will receive the entirety of Halliday's trillion-dollar fortune, including his controlling share in the Oasis' parent company. Halliday was an eccentric genius obsessed with the decade he grew up in -- the 1980s -- so Wade and his fellow egg hunters ("gunters" for short) have all become experts in '80s pop culture themselves, from early video games to chart-topping music, movies, and TV shows. When Wade's avatar, Parzival, finds the first key -- followed quickly by four other top gunters he considers friends -- he's quickly threatened by IOI, a global corporation that hires professional gamers (called "Sixers") to work on their behalf in the hunt. With the stakes so high, can Wade and the other "High Five" gunters -- Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech, (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki), and Sho (Philip Zhao) -- keep Halliday's egg out of IOI's hands ... and not get killed in the process?
Is it any good?
Although the many story changes might be hard for book purists to accept, Steven Spielberg has lovingly captured the zeitgeist of '80s nostalgia in this adventure. Plus, he brings his own spectacular style to the visuals. Those expecting a faithful or pure adaptation should prepare themselves for key departures from the novel; some of the changes are understandable, while others are initially a bit disappointing. The first challenge is completely different; there's no high school, Oklahoma, Joust, WarGames, or Rush; and the High Five's meeting/collaboration is completely sped up (and that's just a few of the changes). Of course, screenwriters Zak Penn and Cline couldn't depict all of Parzival's '80s trivia-dropping, game playing, and theory-obsessing in the film -- what works on paper doesn't always translate to the screen. What is on screen is pure Spielberg: an epic quest, young people banding together, and a love of the decade when he himself (as well as fellow filmmakers like Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron) reigned supreme in popular culture. The movie, like Halliday's hunt, is filled with Easter eggs for movie buffs and nostalgic enthusiasts. Multiple viewings may be in order to catch them all, because some are fleeting, while others are more overt. (Chances are if the audience is laughing and you aren't, you just missed a visual tribute to an '80s movie, fictional character, cartoon, or game.)
The movie is most impressive when the action is taking place in the Oasis. Spielberg immerses viewers in the sort of virtual reality it would be easy to get lost in, particularly when real life is so bleak. And that, if there's one thing that keeps a very good movie from being extraordinary, is the problem. The virtual scenes dazzle and inspire, while the real-world plot is slightly less interesting. An action sequence between geared-up avatars inside a game is naturally more colorful and imaginative than the grim reality of car chases and debtors' prison. The actors all do a fine job with their roles, even though two of them are far off the ages of their book counterparts. Cooke (who was so wonderful in Thoroughbreds) is believably passionate, if for some reason not quite as much of a genius as she is in the book ("book Art3mis" is even smarter about all things Halliday than Parzival). Rylance (who's become one of Spielberg's most frequent collaborators) is excellent as the nearly mythical Halliday, and Ben Mendelsohn is perfectly smarmy as IOI's greedy (and evil) executive, Nolan Sorrento. Alan Silvestri's score, along with the many '80s jams, is wholly evocative of the decade -- which is only to be expected, considering that his previous scores include the Back to the Future trilogy, which is heavily referenced in this film. Considering the Herculean task of translating Cline's epic novel onto the screen, Spielberg has kept the wonder and the nostalgia; ultimately's that's what will enchant viewers.
Talk to your kids about ...
What's the story's message about screen time/virtual life? Why is it important to step away and live in the real world?
How do the movie's real-life characters compare to their Oasis avatars? What's the appeal of changing your appearance online or in virtual space? Is Art3mis right when she tells Parzival that "you don't know me"?
Fans of the book: What do you think of the page-to-screen changes in the story's plot details and characterizations? Why do you think they decided to make them? Which differences do you appreciate? Was there anything from the book you missed seeing on-screen?
- In theaters: March 29, 2018
- On DVD or streaming: July 24, 2018
- Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn
- Director: Steven Spielberg
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Action/Adventure
- Topics: Adventures, Misfits and Underdogs
- Character Strengths: Perseverance, Teamwork
- Run time: 140 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, nudity and language
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