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Ready Player One: Slumdog Millionaire in the VR world

"If you have never played a video game ever in your life, I want to make sure you will feel it in this film"

Steven Spielberg on "Ready Player One"

Ready Player One is a film made for the lot of us who have grown up in the 80's/ 90's in the world of VHS Tapes, Audio Cassettes, Pop Music and Walkman. It is based on the book by the same name written by Ernest Cline.

Director Steven Spielberg in this new film shows how filmmakers can integrate technology into the films narrative with spectacular results. I mean just think of it that one poor slum kid uses his VR avatar in 2049 to take a trip into the 1980's. Sounds a bit like "Back To The Future"??

RPO is Set in 2049's world in Columbus, Ohio which is essentially a dystopian, apocalyptic ruin where people live in projects and slum areas. In this bleak world , the VR technology enables people to go to a shangri la (called The Oasis) where they can be their own self in any avatar they chose to be. Its in this world the story takes the centre stage. Up for grabs is the entire shareholding of the founder of this gaming company which controls and operates this world which is valued at over half a trillion dollars.

Spielberg very skilfully uses old films in 1980's and 1990's to power his storyline. Founders of Oasis and its holding company played by Mark Rylance("Dunkirk", "Bridge Of Spies") and Simon Pegg ("Mission Impossible") are 1980's computer games enthusiasts who derive their inspiration from "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" and the Steve Jobs-Steve Wozniak combo who started Apple Inc.


The film plays out in Oasis ( The Virtual World) and Columbus, Ohio (The Real World). The ethos of the story line is quite similar to "Slumdog Millionaire"where a street kid with no money aims for the big prize in a hardly fought contest. However , here the film uses VR to enhance the character line up of RPO. The protagonist Wade Watts (aptly named "Parzival"in his gaming avatar) and his VR gaming team known as "The High Five" ( Artemis, Aech, Daish, Saito) (which he hasn't seen them or met in real as they are always logged into Oasis) to crack the big prize in a contest known as "The Quest" started by Oasis's founder James Halliday who masquerades as "Anorak" ( A Merlin inspired character who guides all gamers to the various keys and levels of the Oasis). As the prize is humongous , all sorts of people compete in the contest which includes IOI ( a rival games producer) and its army of thugs known as Gunters (Egg Hunters in the film). It is this race against time in which "High Five" and "IOI" compete for the big prize the arsenal of RPO.

The problem of this storytelling is that the Spielberg had to constantly juggle between the real and the VR version of each characters life. But thanks to one seminal goal of all characters, the film becomes easier for the viewer to follow.

In all fairness, RPO belongs to the Oasis. The virtual world gave the author Ernest Cline and Spielberg a limitless canvas to paint and create unlimited concepts. In the Oasis, the players see what they have been missing in the real world. Memories of childhood, cutting edge technology, a fair level playing field and the awesomeness of creating alter egos of themselves in a dystopian world with no future. In many ways, Oasis is that time of the day for players when they can take an escape from the grim reality of a destroyed world.

Virtual Reality and the storytelling :-

As the players in the Oasis can't see their selfs, RPO beautifully creates as parallel storyline of the central characters where they play as a team daily but don't know who the other person is. When Wade/ Parzival realises that his pal Aech ( a huge Hulk like character in Oasis) is a actually an African woman, he is taken aback. To me this is only possible for characters when they operate in a parallel world. The concept of living in two worlds is extremely invigorating to the viewer.

References from Films and Popular Culture:-

The phenomenal strategy which helps RPO is that it steals pieces of films, objects and premises from other films quite skilfully. One of the major pluses of having Steven Spielberg as a director was that he himself owns the rights to his classics such as "Back To The Future"which is similar to the world in which RPO operates. To me I had goosebumps when out of nowhere "The High Five" are pulled into The Overlook Hotel of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining". They live the same world which Jack Torrance lives in the movie. They go from one level to the other at the hotel with great alterations to the original story by Spielberg himself. In addition one can see The Delorean and a number of pointers from Jurassic Park, Schwarzenegger films, Batman and DC Universe,King Kong, Grand Theft Auto and dozens of other films and TV shows. In short, RPO is a tribute to the 80's childhood of Americans and people who lived and breathed video games. Spielberg very creatively uses the prowess of his personal brand to lift these films. I am sure the legal team at Warner Bros would have gone nuts in doing Permission agreements, IP usage and what not documents for this film. Over 60 films according to me are in RPO directly or indirectly as references.

RPO invokes the debate of Real and Digital world :-

Somewhere in the story one feels the fatigue of the artificial world the protagonist and his team feel. The moment when they meet their real selves in a back alley and their reactions to it is fascinating. It reminds us of the good old days of ICQ chats when you would'nt the real person whom you have been acquainted for months. At the end Wade ends his journey in a real world where his pains and tribulations get ignited. The house he lives in gets demolished by the IOI operators.

The film at the end gives a clear message to us is that real is the real deal. The fact that Wade and team win money and are able to pull themselves from poverty to riches is the central theme of the story. It might be inferred that Spielberg and Cline are using the 80's metaphor to invoke age old habits of our childhood and at the same time be immersed in the present.

The Look and Feel of "Real Player One"

RPO is set in a world where fantasy co exists with brutal reality. You get an extreme high when you enter the Oasis, see a digital version of a futuristic New York City and when you get back at Columbus, you see a futuristic slum with cabins on different floors. In fact at times RPO feels like India where you experience the high in certain areas and feel the apathy of poverty in a lot of places. The name of Wade Watts in Oasis is "Parzival" inspired from the famed German poem which talks about his journey for the quest of the Holy Grail. This is something which Wade does in RPO. There is consistent references of popular culture icons across the film. The movie starts and ends largely in the VR world of Oasis which creates limitless possibilities for imagining ideas. The use of motion capture is the tentpole of Ready Player One. The scene in which Parzival and Artemis meet at a night club is stunning.

Slumdog Millionaire and Ready Player One

Jamal Malik and Wade Watts have similar problems to handle. Jamal lives in a slum in Mumbai, Wade lives in a slum in Columbus. Jamal playes "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" and Wade plays in "The Oasis". The big prize is the money and the girl of his dreams in both the movies. An authoritative enemy is against Jamal and Wade ie Sorrento of IOI and Prem Kumar, the celebrity host. Both fight unimaginable odds to reach their goals. RPO is "Slumdog of the Future".

Final Analysis:-

RPO is a roller coaster ride like no film ever seen as it uses technology to empower its narrative. Use of 3D, Motion Capture, Virtual Reality etc ensure its an immersive film to watch. The problem is that if you don't have all that knowledge of films, TV and popular culture, you might feel lost. Ty Sheridian and Mark Rylance shine in their roles.

The Baniya Meter gives 7 out of 10 for "Ready Player One"

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