Ready Player One
Ready Player One is a science-fiction action-adventure film following the young Wade Watts through a virtual reality simulator called the OASIS. Wade leads the competition for OASIS creator James Halliday's legendary Easter egg with his avatar Parzival, traversing many iconic pop culture references of the past 40 years and making fast friends and enemies along the way. The film, directed by Steven Spielberg, is based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Earnest Cline which stays safely within the realm of '80s pop culture and makes for a very entertaining read if you have the time. It was speculated that Spielberg's regular collaborator and long-time friend John Williams would score the film, but Williams opted instead to score The Post, leaving the score for Ready Player One in Alan Silvestri's very capable hands. It seemed odd at first to think these two had never worked together, but considering the exclusivity Spielberg and Williams have enjoyed with one another over their long and prosperous careers, and the heartbreaking realization that all three of these titans may well retire whenever they please, Silvestri's promotion comes as a fortuitous delight. Silvestri has been a staple of film music for a long time now, though the average film goer might not know it. Some of his better acclaimed works include Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, and Marvel's The Avengers, full of his sensational, uplifting musical style and some of the best themes ever written for film. This month we have the extreme pleasure to have not one but two new Silvestri scores to explore between Ready Player One and the greatly anticipated Avengers: Infinity War. The score for Ready Player One itself will assuredly be ranked among the composer's finest work, every bit as courageous and sincere as the spirit of a true grail quest, and is made more remarkable when looking upon the undesirable task of devising music for this particular film. Besides the expectation that Silvestri would uphold the standard set by Williams, he was also required to navigate hundreds of pop culture references, many of which would have been perfectly feasible to reference within the score. Making the objective decision to write new material that would operate as the fundamental musical substance for the score gave him a healthy basis from which to start, and in any case the end product is chock-full of trivia. The theme for Ready Player One influences the prevailing attitude of the score, written in the major mode and appearing whenever one of the keys in Halliday's hunt is found. The melody is divided into two sections: the first a spurious, gallant celebration that ascends in the strings, sharing in the elation of the successful egg hunter, and the second a warm phrase in the brass acknowledging a job well done. The theme is not only presented in full on several occasions but has much to say as fragments of it appear within nearly every cue. On a side note: the term "gunter", a portmanteau for "egg hunter" as established in the book, is by far the most unfortunate detail to make it into the film. I sympathize with anyone familiar to the vulgar connotations of the word stem, and for those of you unfamiliar, ignorance is bliss. A secondary theme intrinsic to the emotional substance of the music was written for Halliday. This wistful melody is performed on flute throughout the score, pausing at the end of each phrase as if to express regret for a leap not taken. It is a really beautiful theme, delivering sentimentality enough to rival his work on Forrest Gump and put to use whenever we encounter one of the video memories left behind by Halliday as clues for the egg. The funeral broadcast used to start the contest is a good example, the beginning of which uses Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor to administer ironic melodrama to the unwittingly deadpan figure ("Hello, I'm James Halliday"). For Silvestri to imbue a film with two such persuasive themes as these and evoke the grandeur of great film scores past is nothing short of selfless charity. He writes the stuff of our dreams; music that gives us goosebumps and lives immortal in our hearts because suppressing such fervor would make empty every reason worth living for.
There is a not inconsiderable amount of exoticism to be heard throughout the score. Our introduction to "The Oasis" is accompanied by an African choir, chanting over a relaxed drum beat as the avatars find themselves at ease within their virtual paradise, presumably based on the 1994 new age piece "Adiemus" by Welsch composer Karl Jenkins. The likely aim here was to unite the inhabitants of the OASIS as the newest cradle of humanity, an epithet long identified with Africa. Despite this attempt "The Oasis" is the one cue that stands out of place stylistically from of the rest of the score, especially when pitted against the radiant women's chorus that penetrates the air as Wade enters the third gate and meets Anorak for the last time ("This Is Wrong"). The other use of exoticism appears when Halliday's avatar Anorak commences the quest, with Silvestri pulling out a pentatonic phrase nearly identical to his work on The Mummy Returns and casting an impression of antiquity over the hunt ("Hello, I'm James Halliday"). This phrase returns in the "Orb Meeting" cue, followed by a devious string waltz written for i-R0k, a confederate of the ruthless Nolan Sorrento. The remainder of the score involves a lot of Silvestri's idiosyncratic prescriptions, injected within larger action and set pieces. An initial dose is given during the race when Wade solves the first clue ("Why Can't We Go Backwards?"), using the same dangerous strings and brass from the first attempted race, and interjected with repeated effort from the first bar of the theme. A brass fanfare that would make Williams proud calls out at Wade's victory, played in the film by floating brass instruments at the finish line that assume direct authority over the score. Attempting to understand what is and is not diegetic in Ready Player One is difficult based on the nature of the film constantly switching between the OASIS and the real world, but this in no way detracts from the success of the film, instead adding another level of tongue-in-cheek puzzles to be solved. Silvestri's efforts here and throughout the entire third act of the film are superbly rewarding, using bouncing horns and woodwinds, daring and adventurous brass, marching percussion, and electronic rhythms to safely traverse many alarming and drastic circumstances. The composer's mannerisms are given complete freedom within the music, regularly alluding to his work on Back to the Future. In fact, more than just referencing the score, Ready Player One is practically its younger sibling. After all, with a main character who drives around in a DeLorean and uses a Zemeckis Cube, named for one of the directors of Back to the Future, how can it not be? The score inherited many familiar string, woodwind, and xylophone shots, such as the little button that plays when Sorrento is hit in the face by his associate ("There's Something I Need To Do"), and Silvestri even cites the first three notes of the original Back to the Future theme as Wade puts the Zemeckis cube to good use ("Real World Consequences"). It can be noted that the synthetic components of the score relate back to Sorrento, an ingredient well suited to a man driven by greed and industry. Sorrento does have has own theme, a brooding chromatic passage endeavoring to charm its victims and hide the bureaucrat's dissatisfaction, but it is seldom heard in the film ("Sorrento Punked"). Back to the Future notwithstanding, there are other distinct musical references from older films, such as Max Steiner's theme for the 1933 King Kong, performed when Kong appears on the race track, or the "Main Title" cue from The Shining. Naturally the cue is used to invite the high five into the famous Overlook Hotel for the second trial, assembled with electronic instruments for the 1980 Stanley Kubrick horror film by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. The "Main Title" cue was the only original piece of music to make it into The Shining, based on the Dies irae hymn of the thirteenth century, though this did not stop Spielberg reusing a few pieces from the Classical repertoire as Kubrick had for the Overlook Hotel. Another reference to make its way in to the film is the theme from the original 1954 Godzilla, composed by Akira Ifukube and used during the final battle when Sorrento converts an artifact into Mechagodzilla ("Looking for a Truck"). This theme has a rich history, appearing again and again within Godzilla films past as a primordial, primitive element that uses non-symmetrical Stravinsky-esque rhythms to display the irrepressible force of nature. There may well be other film music references I have missed, but in addition to the souvenirs mentioned above there are a plethora of incredible rock and pop hits peppered throughout the film that deserve an album unto themselves. A few mainstream critics have accused the film of catering too much to the nostalgia inherent in the story, but to blame something for what it sets out to do is not a valid basis from which to critique. The film traverses universal themes of reality and friendship, and made an improvement over the book where the modern day perception of nerds is concerned. Silvestri's musical exploration of such offers an essential understanding of the values held by the film and its characters, and his collaboration with Spielberg has brought about an interesting study on account of their like-tendency to hit all the same plot points beat-for-beat. In this way Silvestri's music compliments Spielberg's film more literally than a Williams score as it directly reinforces what Spielberg has to say, whereas a Williams score would endeavor to offer something other than what has been said. This is not to say one score would be superior to another, only that we could anticipate a manifestly different product from either. Regardless, even if the score for Avengers: Infinity War managed to bomb, Silvestri has given us another one for the histories.