In ‘Ready Player One,’ Reality is Virtual, but Characters, Story Are Real

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg is going into the future with his virtual reality adventure Ready Player One. Based on Ernest Cline’s bestseller of the same name, the film takes place in the dystopian world of 2045, while referencing 1980s popular culture.

Set more than 25 years in the future, the characters are driven by overpopulation and poverty to escape into a digital universe. One of them is young Wade Watts, a poor orphan living in the stacks, a poverty-ridden area in Columbus, Ohio, who escapes to the Oasis through his virtual avatar, Parzival.

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He is not alone. Billions of displaced people the world over escape into the digital universe, using aliases and idealized appearance through their avatars. The reason? As Watts says in the film, this “is a place where the limits of reality are your imagination. People come to the oasis for all the things they can do, but they stay because of all the things they can be.”

He describes the Oasis as “the only place it feels like I mean anything.”

Control the Oasis

The Oasis is the brainchild of reclusive James Halliday, played by Oscar winner Mark Rylance. Halliday is a genius and also a fan of 1980s popular culture.

Upon his death, Halliday reveals he has created a virtual reality game where players are called to discover a hidden object, an Easter egg. Whoever finds it first gets a half-trillion dollars and total control of the Oasis.

That sets Parzival and his friends on a collision course with the head of iOi, Innovative Online Industries, a huge virtual reality corporation, and its CEO Nolan Sorrento, played by Ben Mendelsohn. Sorrento will do anything to win the contest and control the Oasis. So, a brutal hunt for the Easter egg begins inside the virtual world, and also outside, in the real world.

​World run amok

Spielberg says this spectacular, escapist and addictive virtual future is the product of a world run amok.

“Having spent so much time trying to imagine what the future could be for all of us in that circumstance, I suddenly saw a future that Ernest Cline, the writer of the book, and Zak Penn, the screenwriter, envisioned, and it wasn’t that far away from what I think is going to happen,” Spielberg said in a release about the film.

To further accentuate the stark contrast between the Oasis and the grittier real world, Spielberg shot the scenes of the dystopian future on film, while scenes in the virtual universe were captured digitally.

Tye Sheridan, who plays Wade and his avatar Parzival, describes shooting the digital part of the film. 

“We did that in a motion-capture studio. We are wearing these suits with head cams and dots all over our face so that they can track, they can record our facial performances and put those on our avatar, animate us and create a virtual world around us.”

Sheridan says during filming, a monitor displayed the virtual version of their movements in real time. This enabled the actors to perform while seeing themselves as their avatars walking around, tracking the actors’ movements.

1980s deja vu

Throughout the film, Spielberg references 1980s popular culture, building on the nostalgia of his fan base. Video games like Adventure released for the Atari 2600 video game console, 1979-1980; movies such as Stanley Kubrick’s horror flick blockbuster The Shining, and Stephen King’s equally popular book by the same title, or dance moves from Saturday Night Fever. They all happen in the seductive cyber world of the Oasis, where the main character finds purpose, love and social justice.

Spielberg notes, however, that though Ready Player One builds on virtual reality cutting-edge technology, it also warns about VR’s addictive potential and encourages its viewers to disconnect from technology regularly in order to find real beauty in the world. He also says as impressive as his digital production is, it is ultimately meant to advance a story about real characters and the human condition.

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