When virtual reality becomes easier and more interesting than real life, the world turns upside down. In the dystopic world of Ready Player One, this is precisely the problem. Rising seas, poverty, food rations, massive unemployment, starvation, manipulation, unmanageable debt, and slavery (or at least indentured servitude) have swamped people around the world.

It’s 2045 and with the world being in shambles the near-penniless and global magnates alike are seeking an escape from daily life via a virtual reality entertainment universe known as the OASIS, co-created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) of Gregarious Games. Halliday has become a trillionaire man-child by creating this virtual reality universe, filling it with every piece of nostalgia and pop culture he loved as a child, and then sharing it with the world. 

But we learn of events like The Corn Syrup Droughts and The Bandwidth Riots (events that totally seem plausible or even likely to happen in the near future). But all of society — economics, entertainment, politics, art, personal relationships — is suddenly at the hands of a single global company and, more often than not, its events take place within the OASIS. 

Upon his death, Halliday reveals in true Willy-Wonka-fashion that he is leaving total ownership of the OASIS in the hands of the first person to find the Easter Egg hidden within it. A final game, unlocked by three keys awarded at the end of three challenges, for what essentially amounts to the most economically powerful and socially influential enterprise ever conceived by man. 

Wade (Tye Sheridan), in the form of his windswept avatar Parzival, is hot in pursuit of clues to help him complete Halliday’s challenges. As an orphaned teenager living in the slums of Columbus, Ohio, known as the “stacks” (a series of trailers piled precariously atop one another in a tower of Jenga-like craftsmanship), Halliday’s competition is the only thing that provides Wade a reprieve from the struggles in his day-to-day life. 

The contest attracts a number of egg hunters, or “gunters”, but no is able to conquer Halliday’s first challenge: a harrowing, demolition-derby-style race across the Manhattan skyline as drivers try to avoid King Kong, the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, and destructive obstacle after destructive obstacle. No one has finished the race. No one has gotten past Kong. Parzival is one of the few gunters still trying to finish the race. He is joined by fellow gunters Art3mis, Aech, Daito, and Sho, whose real-life identities, like everyone else in the OASIS, are anonymous. 

But the Halliday contest has also attracted the interest of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI) and the stereotypical Spineless Corporate Villain. Sorrento seeks total control of the OASIS. And in his eager effort to manipulate players for a massive financial profit, Sorrento has constructed “Loyalty Centers” full of indentured servants and hurled wave after wave of employees into the OASIS to find the keys and Egg for the company. 

After Parzival completes the first challenge, he befriends Art3mis, a well-known gunter who shares a common interest in Halliday’s history. They swap insights into Halliday’s life with the help of the Halliday Journals and its Curator. Eventually, they conclude that Halliday’s biggest regret in life was his failure to profess his love for Kira, a woman who eventually marries Halliday’s best friend and business partner, Ogden Morrow. 

Believing Kira is the clue needed to locate the second key, Parzival and Art3mis team up with Aech, Daito, and Sho — they call themselves the High Five — and proceed to complete the final two challenges which include a virtual world modeled after the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, Planet Doom, a series of Atari 2600 games, and a cornucopia of ‘80s and ‘90s pop culture references. 

Constantly ambushing the High Five as they attempt to win the game, Sorrento pulls out all the stops in order to gain control of the OASIS, even enlisting a mercenary to track down and erase Parzival from the leaderboard, deploying an unbreakable force field, and setting off a Cataclyst bomb to kill every avatar on Planet Doom. The story takes a dark turn, however, when Sorrento discovers Parzival’s true identity, attempts to bride? him, and then when Wade refuses sets a bomb off at Wade’s home, killing his Aunt Alice and dozens of others. 

In a last-ditch effort to stop Sorrento and IOI, Parzival broadcasts a plea message throughout the OASIS, calling on all other players to help the High Five attack the IOI forces around the castle and take down Sorrento in the name of James Halliday. Parzival breaks through the defenses and reaches the last stage, while IOI employees in the real world attempt to derail the van carrying Parzival and the real-life players of the High Five. 

Parzival gains the last key and is transported to a treasure room where Halliday’s avatar, Anorak the All-Knowing, gives him a contract to sign. [SPOILER] Parzival hesitates and recognizes that this is the same contract Halliday forced Morrow to sign and turn over his share of Gregarious Games. Parzival refuses and watches as Anorak changes into a projection of Halliday himself, revealing that the contract was the final test to ensure Parzival would not make the same mistakes Halliday did. Parzival is given the Easter Egg and control of the OASIS.

Back in the real world, Sorrento fails to stop the van carrying Wade and the High Five. Holding Wade at gunpoint while he is still linked into the OASIS, Sorrento is surrounded by police forces and arrested for his role in the Stacks bombing. The High Five emerge from the van as heroes and are greeted by Ogden Morrow, revealed to have been the Curator all along. Wade, even though he found the Easter Egg, decides to run OASIS in tandem with the High Five and Ogden Morrow. They agree to ban IOI from entering the OASIS, close all loyalty centers, and to shut down the OASIS twice a week so everyone can spend more time in the real world. 

In Ready Player One, as in many virtual and alternate reality storylines, there is a problem wrapped in another problem. Not only is human life devalued and seen merely as a source of money and way to turn a profit, but there is a question as to what degree virtual reality (i.e., video games) itself devalues life. The moral, it seems, is not that entertainment consoles/video games/virtual reality helmets (insert any other form of electronic entertainment here) are inherently bad but that they can never replace the person standing right in front of you. 

Ready Player One’s MPAA rating is PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity, and language. Stephen Spielberg directs. Based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline. Running time: 140 min. 

The editor thanks Chuck Donovan at the Charlotte Lozier Institute for sharing this review.