Tron meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in Spielberg's 4K treat
By Jim Bray
Ready Player One is a real home theatre treat, and the best way to catch it is on Warners' new 4K UHD disc with HDR.
As the headline says, it's kind of a blend between Tron – in which we're treated to a fantastic virtual world – and Roald Dahl's chocolaty morality tale in which contestants are bent on finding a golden ticket (keys, in this case) that will give the winner a huge reward.
Steven Spielberg's 2018 virtual reality flick also shares a bit of DNA with James Cameron's Avatar, in that we have real world folk using alternate personalities (and bodies, though in this case they're virtual) to interact with others from around the world. And, like Avatar, the villain of the piece is a huge corporation (IOI, which looks suspiciously like LOL on their logo) bent on maximizing their profits at all costs.
The movie is set in the year 2045, probably to give today's virtual technology time to mature, but considering the age of the cast members and the pop culture stuff they espouse throughout the film, there must have been nothing popular created in culture since before the turn of the century. So, we get The Iron Giant, The Shining, and an abundance of other references from the era, including a Zemeckis Cube (a Rubik's cube that bends time) and the Back to the Future DeLorean (kind of). There's also King Kong, a T-Rex and so much more.
As a 66 year old nerd, I get most of the references, and my kids will because they grew up around me, but it appears these kids know all this stuff because it was the favoured era of the person who sets the game into motion.
Anyway, our hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is, like most people, living in the squalor of "The Stacks", a three-dimensional trailer park where the ratty old mobile homes are stacked as if on scaffolds, undoubtedly so more of the unwashed masses can be housed there with a smaller footprint than if they were allowed to spread out on their own. His real life sucks, so he hangs out in the OASIS, a virtual world where most people hang out looking to fill their otherwise empty lives. People meet there, date there, play there – form bonds of friendship with people they've never met and who, for all they know, are completely different from the avatar persona they display in the OASIS.
Just like Facebook!
Yep, it's bread and circuses for the masses, while their betters frolic in luxury in their separate spaces. To be completely honest, the real world of Ready Player One reminds me of what our real world might have looked like were Hillary Clinton to have succeeded Barack Obama and finished the new world order cabal's plan to subjugate the proles and rule over us like overlords.
Anyway, the OASIS is a very cool place and I'd love to go there! I've experienced a couple of virtual reality demonstrations and am of the opinion that the concept's future is very, very interesting. Besides the cool stuff of gaming and the like – the stuff of Ready Player One – I can see the technology being very useful for such things as virtual tours (you can visit Rome without leaving home!). And that still only scratches the surface.
In the OASIS created by James Halliday, a Steve Jobs-like nerd (played beautifully by Mark Rylance) and his former partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), you can go "virtually" anywhere and do anything, though of course this movie only scratches what must be a gigantic surface of the entire virtual world.
Halliday, at the movie's beginning, has died and bequeathed his huge fortune as well as offering total control of the OASIS to whoever can win a three-part contest he designed as a way to smoke out someone worthy enough to be his heir. Wade is the first to finally conquer the first challenge, which involves a thrilling high tech and high-speed race, and finds himself and his little virtual friends - "the High Five" – thrust into a real race – both against time and against an evil capitalist (Rogue One's Ben Mendelsohn) and his minions – to save the OASIS from becoming just another corporate evilness.
I do get tired of businesspeople always being the bad guys, but Ready Player One is actually quite a ripping yarn – though the "The Shining" scene is pretty intense and could be too scary for kids or those (such as my dear wife) of a more gentle persuasion. But the rest of the flick is a rollicking ride that cuts between the OASIS and real life, bending the borders between the two.
I enjoyed the pop culture stuff a lot (I've seen just about everything ripped off – er, paid homage to – in Ready Player One) and the virtual world is really a sight to be seen – especially in 4K HDR. The Shining segment is mind blowing; I'm a huge Stanley Kubrick fan (though The Shining isn't nearly my favourite of his) and marveled at how Spielberg and his collaborators managed to recreate the scenes from that film so beautifully. It's like they really did go right into that movie!
Warners' 4K disc presentation features Dolby Vision HDR, which expands the colour palette and contrast range, as well as using "dynamic metadata" to optimize the picture frame by frame. I have no idea how that works, but it does. In my never humble opinion, HDR is reason enough to upgrade to 4K, because it's immediately obvious regardless of screen size, whereas the extra pixels are more noticeable the larger your screen size.
The picture quality is outstanding, though the real-world scenes are affected by Spielberg's penchant for a kind of washed out colour palette. In this instance, however, it helps illustrate the drabness of the real-world lives lived by these "common folk." That said, the detail is fantastic, the effects are mostly seamless (I did notice at least one CG shot whose seams showed) and the picture "virtually" (pun intended) pops off the screen. Just what you want!
Warners' 4K disc includes a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that's backward compatible. There's also a DTS-HD Master Audio track, and that's what I used. And it's glorious! Alan Silvestri's score (John Williams, Spielberg's usual collaborator, was busy working on The Post) and all the retro music (shades of the Guardians of the Galaxy films) sounds great, and is mostly front-centric – but the other sounds, the effects, the noises, the explosions, etc. will give all of your home theatre channels a chance to shine. It's a very dynamic and engaging soundtrack, with excellent channel separation all around.
There's a decent set of extras, too, over on the Blu-ray that's also in the box.
Game Changer: Cracking the Code is a about an hour long and is a documentary in which cast and crew look at various aspects of the production, including lots of behind the scenes footage. It's a great look at the genesis of the movie.
Effects for a Brave New World, my other favourite supplement, pores over the outstanding visual effects, from early concept art and practical effects to the glorious CG images and the performance capture used to bring the characters to life.
Ernie & Tye's Excellent Adventure covers the lead actor and writer reuniting in their common hometown of Austin, Texas as they get ready for the film's premiere. High Score: Endgame covers the music of Alan Silvestri, a long-time collaborator of Spielberg protégé Robert Zemickis, though this is the fist time he's worked with Spielberg.
Level Up: Sound for the Future gives insight into the incredible sound design of Ready Player One, while The '80s: You're the Inspiration sees cast and crew opining about how that decade was so important to the movie and its storyline.
It's interesting stuff. I preferred the SFX stuff and the longer documentary, but there's undoubtedly something for everyone here.
Ready Player One really surprised me. I had expected at best a treat for the eyes and ears (and it is) but a film that would force me to shut down my brain lest I went postal, but it wasn't! There's little politics in it and not much social justice warrior stuff. Instead, we get a rip-roarin' adventure that's easy to get caught up in, some terrific performances, and a film crafted lovingly by one of the most gifted directors working today.
And there's even a good message at film's end about embracing real life.
I think I'll watch it again tonight.
Copyright 2018 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.