Home > Reviews > READY PLAYER ONE – Alan Silvestri

READY PLAYER ONE – Alan Silvestri

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Nostalgia for the late 1970s and 1980s is massively pervasive in pop culture right now, with TV shows like Stranger Things and big screen remakes and re-imaginings of period icons like Star Wars and It proving to be massively popular with audiences across the world. The new film Ready Player One may prove to be the pinnacle of the nostalgia festival; it’s a science fiction action adventure film based on an enormously popular novel by Ernest Cline, directed by the cinematic king of the 1980s, Steven Spielberg. The film is set 50 years into the future, in the aftermath of some sort of economic collapse which has left American society in disarray. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a teenage kid living in The Stacks – a futuristic trailer park from hell – who escapes from his bleak daily life by retreating to The Oasis, a virtual reality alternative universe, along with literally billions of other people all over the world. The Oasis was created years before by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a Steve Jobs-esque wunderkind, and after he died he left instructions for a ‘quest’ in his will: somewhere hidden deep inside the Oasis are three magical keys – Easter Eggs – and the first person to find all three will inherit control of the Oasis universe, as well as Halliday’s trillion dollar fortune. As his Oasis alter-ego avatar Parzival, Wade has spent years searching for the first of the Easter Eggs, with little success; however, shortly after teaming up with another avatar named Artemis (Olivia Cooke), Wade/Parzival locates the first key – an event which brings him to the attention of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the unscrupulous executive of IOI, a rival tech company which wants to control and exploit the Oasis for their own gain.

Ready Player One is an enjoyable movie with an interesting story and an impressive visual style, but a lot of the fun to be had while watching the movie is derived from trying to spot all the references to the aforementioned 1970s and 80s pop culture, TV, movies, music, and video games. James Halliday, the fictional creator of the Oasis, was obsessed with it, and as such the Oasis is crammed full of loving homages to that era. There’s no way to count them all, but the film is packed with literally hundreds and hundreds of them – and that’s probably a conservative estimate. King Kong, the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, Godzilla, the Iron Giant, Goro from Mortal Kombat, Chucky from Child’s Play, and Gundam, all play fairly major roles in the action set pieces.

In addition, just on my own first viewing of the film, I noticed blink-and-you’ll-miss-them character cameos from Freddy Krueger, Beetlejuice, Batman and Catwoman, and Robocop. Parzival drives the DeLorean from Back to the Future, Artemis rides a light cycle from Tron, and other vehicles in a racing sequence include the Batmobile, KITT from Knight Rider, and the van from The A-Team. The entire middle section of the film is set in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. One of the artifacts in the film is called a Zemeckis Cube. The incantation that has to be chanted over another artifact is Merlin’s spell from Excalibur. One character uses the glaive from Krull as a weapon. And the film’s finale is a loving homage to early Atari video games, with special importance given to Warren Robinett’s Adventure. It’s a never-ending visual feast for anyone who grew up in that era, and it doesn’t stop there.

Not content with just concentrating on visual nostalgia, the film’s music is also a loving throwback to that era. Considering how much of an impact his music had on that period, and considering his decades-long relationship with Steven Spielberg, it would stand to reason that John Williams would be the composer for Ready Player One – and, when the project was first announced, he was indeed attached. However, taking into account his advanced age, as well as the hectic schedule he endured working on both The Last Jedi and The Post in 2017, Williams eventually decided against scoring this one too, meaning that Ready Player One became only the fourth Spielberg movie to be scored by someone other than Williams – the others being Duel (Billy Goldenberg, 1971), The Color Purple (Quincy Jones, 1985), and Bridge of Spies (Thomas Newman, 2015). For Ready Player One, Spielberg turned to a composer he had worked with several times as a producer: Alan Silvestri. Of course, Silvestri himself is almost as much of a 1980s film music icon as John Williams is, with his most notable contributions being his scores for the Back to the Future series. As such, the score for Ready Player One is an intentional throwback to his mainstream heyday, a quintessential Silvestri score that combines all his best and most famous trademark sounds from his long career on the film music A-list.

Stylistically, the score is a blend of the action music Silvestri wrote for things like Judge Dredd, combined with the incessant percussion of Predator, the more intimate drama of Forrest Gump or Contact, the glassy electronics of The Abyss, and a massive amount of Back to the Future, in terms of rhythm, orchestration, and even direct thematic quotes. It’s important to remember, though, that this is all 100% intentional. Without the context of Ready Player One’s nostalgic purpose, it would be very easy to dismiss the score as Silvestri repeating himself, but when you understand the reason why it sounds and feels the way it does, the genius becomes clear. Essentially, the score has to work on three levels simultaneously: to mirror in music the same 1980s zeitgeist that the rest of the film does visually, to take the audience back to that time with new music that they might not immediately recognize, but which feels like a classic 80s action score; and, of course, to act as appropriate dramatic underscoring for this film. It’s a difficult task to achieve, but Silvestri does it wonderfully.

Thematically, the score is no less complex. There are at least two major and three minor recurring melodies, plus a plethora of even smaller motifs, all of which play off each other throughout the score. The most prominent theme, of course, is the theme for Parzival, which most have identified as the main theme for the movie as a whole. It’s an unashamedly upbeat, heroic piece, which has a sense of almost child-like enthusiasm to it. During most of the score the theme is heard on sweeping strings and festive brass, but the first time we hear it in full in the score proper is actually in a warm and sentimental variation 0:30 into “Hello, I’m James Halliday,” although it is hinted at in the opening cue.

The second major theme is Halliday’s Theme, written to express the eager boyishness of the creator of the Oasis, as well as the wistful sadness at how his life turned out. Stylistically it has echoes of Silvestri’s 1990s ‘emotional themes’ like Forrest Gump, Contact, and Cast Away, and is most often conveyed by quieter instruments – piano, flutes, and soft strings, augmented by chimes. Its first appearance is at the beginning of the second cue, “Why Can’t We Go Backwards,” and it is really delightful.

In addition to these two main themes there is a heroic motif related to Artemis, and a love theme for Wade and Samantha – the real life versions of the two protagonists – as well as a second hero theme related to the High 5, the gang of friends that Parzival and Artemis gather together in their quest to find the keys; this theme gets an especially magnificent at the very end of “Looking for a Truck”. Unfortunately the nefarious Nolan Sorrento and the IOI Organization isn’t as well represented in thematic terms, although Silvestri does appear to use a significantly increased electronic palette whenever those characters are heavily involved in a scene. All in all, it’s a very well-rounded group of thematic ideas, but listeners may have trouble picking apart the score’s architecture, because Silvestri does such a great job of integrating them all together. Many of the themes are orchestrated similarly, and have similar chord structures, meaning that unless you’re paying real attention some of the detail is liable to slip by. This is especially apparent in the multitudinous action sequences wherein Parzival’s theme, Artemis’s theme, and the High 5 theme, as well as several deconstructed variations and/or more heroic adaptations of all three, regularly feature in the same cue, both sequentially and contrapuntally.

It’s these action sequences that are likely to prove the most popular parts of the score. In cues such as “Why Can’t We Go Backwards,” “Real World Consequences,” “Welcome to the Rebellion,” “High 5 Assembles,” “Wade’s Broadcast,” “Arty on the Inside,” and pretty much everything from “Looking for a Truck” through to “Hold On To Something”, Silvestri pulls out all the action stops, writing music which is thrilling and engaging, compositionally complicated, emotionally satisfying, and contains numerous call-backs to the greatest action scores of his past. Silvestri has always had a very unique style of action writing – punchy staccato brass, rapid fire strings, frequent use of snare drum rhythms coupled with cymbal rings, prominent xylophones in the percussion section, unusual time meters – and this is all on show here. Anyone familiar with Silvestri’s writing style will hear undisguised echoes of things like Predator, Judge Dredd, and even the more kinetic parts of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but the most obvious influence is Back to the Future – and this was a direct request from Spielberg himself.

There is a verbatim statement of the Back to the Future brass fanfare and the DeLorean Reveal piano motif beginning at 1:15 into “Real World Consequences.” Later, there is a reference to the xylophone clatters and rapid string figures in “Welcome to the Rebellion,” and there is a new variation on the piano/snare combination in “High 5 Assembles.” All of these textural hat-tips return during the score’s finale too, appearing prominently throughout “Looking for a Truck,” “Hold On to Something,” and “This Is Wrong.” Knowing that Spielberg specifically asked Silvestri to revisit Back to the Future gives the whole thing a wonderfully nostalgic glow that reflects positively on the rest of the score.

Considering the film’s obsession with Easter Eggs, it is of course not surprising that Silvestri throws a few of his own in too, specifically for film music fans. The opening cue, “The Oasis,” is clearly a reference to the new-age classic pop song ‘Adiemus’ by Karl Jenkins, which was massively popular during the early 1990s. The opening seconds of “Hello, I’m James Halliday” feature a quick blast of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. There is a direct quote of Max Steiner’s theme from the 1933 King Kong beginning at 2:42 in “Why Can’t We Go Backwards,” which is immediately followed by a brilliant reprise of Parzival’s theme, using Steiner’s King Kong orchestrations.

“An Orb Meeting” underscores the in-world encounter between Nolan Sorrento and I-Rok, an intimidating bounty hunter and weapons dealer whose real-world persona is that of a whiny nerd suffering from repetitive strain injuries. That cue opens darkly, with menacing brass chords and low piano clusters which, to me, appear to be an intentional homage to Vermithrax’s theme from Alex North’s Dragonslayer (which was directed by Spielberg’s old friend Matthew Robbins). As it progresses the cue becomes an unexpectedly classical but slightly absurd-in-context solo violin theme for I-Rok, conjures up some magical textures for the all-powerful Orb of Osuvox, and then returns to I-Rok’s theme re-arranged for woodwinds, before finishing with a clear homage to John Williams’s March from 1941 that begins at 2:18 – Spielberg has often said that, of all the themes Williams wrote for his films, 1941 was his favorite.

Later, in “Sorrento Makes An Offer,” Silvestri makes his first use of 1980s synth tones, drawing parallels between Sorrento/IOI and ENCOM, the evil tech company using video games to control the world in Tron, which was scored by Wendy Carlos. These electronic ideas return later in the score, usually in the suspense sequences where Samantha is sneaking around inside IOI headquarters – “Orb of Osuvox,” “Sorrento Punked,” “Get Me Out of This,” and so on. In contrast to the old-fashioned bombast heard elsewhere, these cues sound a little more contemporary, with more subdued orchestral writing, more emphasis on rhythm over melody, and textural similarities to his Avengers scores, among others. I personally feel that these cues are the weakest parts of the score, although ironically they may appeal more strongly to younger listeners who are attuned to Silvestri’s more recent output.

The film’s middle section, in which the High 5 gang have to maneuver their way through a horror-themed world based on Stanley Kubrick’s film of Stephen King’s The Shining, is filled with musical callbacks to that movie. The scene is set with a new Silvestri-arranged version of The Shining’s “Main Title” written by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, and there are several tracks of nightmarish 20th century avant-garde dissonance by Béla Bartók and Krzysztof Penderecki, including their famous pieces “Adagio: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta,” “Polymorphia,” and “The Awakening of Jacob for Orchestra,” all of which appeared in the 1980 horror classic. Unfortunately, none of these pieces appear on the soundtrack. However, Silvestri does have one final Easter Egg up his sleeve – a direct quote of Akira Ifukube’s main title theme from 1954’s Godzilla beginning at 2:04 in “Looking for a Truck,” to coincide with the appearance of Sorrento’s in-world avatar based on Mecha-Godzilla. Despite all this, I can’t help feeling that Silvestri perhaps missed an opportunity to quote Williams’s Jurassic Park theme, use something from Michael Kamen’s Iron Giant score, or perhaps work in a flash of James Horner’s Krull, but you can’t have everything.

During the finale, once the main action is over and Parzival has won control of the Oasis, Silvestri returns to the more emotional music. “This is Wrong” features an angelic chorus, harps, and chimes, giving Parzival’s final encounter with Halliday’s avatar Anorak a magical, almost spiritual feel. This continues into the beautiful “What Are You,” which features several gorgeous performances of Halliday’s theme featuring pleasant oboes, warm string harmonies, lovely flute writing, gentle pianos, and harps. The whole thing has a real sense of childlike innocence, perfectly capturing the idealistic and altruistic nature of Halliday’s personality, and his original goal for what the Oasis should be. The conclusive “There’s Something I Need To Do” reprises Halliday’s theme under the scene where Wade tearfully reconciles with Ogden Morrow, Halliday’s former partner, and finishes with a playful sequence that contains statements of both the main theme and Wade & Samantha’s love theme.

The final two cues are concert suites – the “Main Title” features especially rich, bold, sweeping statements of Parzival’s theme and Halliday’s theme, while the “End Credits” is more focused on the action writing, interspersed with more statements of Parzival’s theme, and finishing with a resounding final flourish of the High 5 fanfare.

Of course, it would also be remiss of me not to mention the overwhelming amount of songs that feature in the soundtrack too. Ready Player One is an 80s pop music lover’s dream: one major scene in a nightclub features a dance sequence set to “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees that blatantly mirrors Saturday Night Fever, while one of the major action sequences is partially scored with Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” arguably the quintessential youth rebellion anthem. Not only that, but songs by everyone from Van Halen to Duran Duran, Billy Idol, the Eurhythmics, Tears for Fears, Bruce Springsteen, Blondie, Hall & Oates, and Rush, crop up from time to time. Spielberg’s song choices were partially informed by the music that author Cline referenced in the original novel, but they still represent what (in my opinion) is the cream of pop music from that decade, and add another enormous amount of glorious nostalgia to the entire endeavor.

I have read some online commentary criticizing Ready Player One as being nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake – saying that there’s no real point to it except to appeal to the childhoods and teenage years of a certain cinema-going demographic. My response is: what’s wrong with that? Is wallowing in the golden glow of one’s own youth such a bad thing, spending two hours basking in the sights and sounds and feelings that informed your taste and dominated your formative years? I was born in 1975, and as such I am squarely within the target audience of this film. Perhaps this means I am too close to the era to be objective, but I don’t really care. Much like the films it is referencing, Ready Player One is a piece of pure entertainment, where every visual reference, every throwaway character cameo, and every musical homage, took me back to those summers where I would sit wide-eyed in a darkened room, enraptured by the silver screen, loving the movies of Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, and the music of Williams and Goldsmith and Horner and, yes, Alan Silvestri. If I come across a little misty-eyed at being able to experience that again while listening to this excellent work…. well, as they said in that decade, eat my shorts.

Buy the Ready Player One soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • SCORE SOUNDTRACK
  • The Oasis (1:48)
  • Hello, I’m James Halliday (2:01)
  • Why Can’t We Go Backwards? (4:17)
  • An Orb Meeting (4:10)
  • Real World Consequences (3:30)
  • Sorrento Makes An Offer (3:33)
  • Welcome to the Rebellion (3:13)
  • High 5 Assembles (4:24)
  • Orb of Osuvox (3:44)
  • Sorrento Punked (3:57)
  • Wade’s Broadcast (5:50)
  • Arty on the Inside (2:33)
  • Looking for a Truck (5:35)
  • She Never Left (2:41)
  • Last Chance (3:20)
  • Get Me Out Of This (1:34)
  • Hold On to Something (5:14)
  • This is Wrong (3:48)
  • What Are You? (3:28)
  • There’s Something I Need To Do (5:01)
  • Ready Player One (Main Title) (2:26)
  • Ready Player One (End Credits) (8:03)
  • SONG SOUNDTRACK
  • I Wanna Be Your Lover (written by Prince Nelson, performed by Prince) (5:47)
  • Everybody Wants To Rule The World (written by Roland Orzabal, Ian Stanley, and Chris Hughes, performed by Tears For Fears) (4:11)
  • Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me) (written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, performed by The Temptations) (3:49)
  • Stand On It (written and performed by Bruce Springsteen) (3:06)
  • One Way Or Another (written by Debbie Harry and Nigel Harrison, performed by Blondie) (3:26)
  • Can’t Hide Love (written by Skip Scarborough, performed by Earth, Wind & Fire) (4:08)
  • Blue Monday (written by Gillian Gilbert, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, and Bernard Sumner, performed by New Order) (7:24)
  • Stayin’ Alive (written by Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb, and Maurice Gibb, performed by Bee Gees) (4:44)
  • We’re Not Gonna Take It (written by Dee Snider, performed by Twisted Sister) (3:37)
  • You Make My Dreams (written by Daryl Hall, John Oates, and Sara Allen, performed by Hall & Oates) (3:11)
  • Pure Imagination (written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, performed by Bryan Nguyen feat. Merethe Soltvedt) (2:32)

Running Time: 84 minutes 21 seconds (Score)
Running Time: 46 minutes 00 seconds (Songs)

Watertower Music (2018)

Music composed and conducted by Alan Silvestri. Orchestrations by Mark Graham and William Ross. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Edited by Jeff Carson and Charles Martin Inouye. Album produced by Alan Silvestri and David Bifano.

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  1. Stuart F.
    April 3, 2018 at 10:05 am

    A world that chooses to completely ignore reality and wallow in pop culture from 50 years before, one that treats just knowing about nerdy references as something of actual value, is a horror movie about an infantilized society. If this movie had treated this concept with the disgust it deserves, it’d have been a lot better.

    That said, Silvestri’s work is beautifully innocent.

  2. April 12, 2018 at 9:23 am

    Jon, I very much enjoyed your review and appreciate your insights into the film and score. For me, the movie was a sweet adventure story, told with wit and charm, and astonishing technical dexterity, and I believe the filmmakers brought more insight and depth to the source material, with its themes of lonely kids isolated from their decaying society, than may at first be apparent among the virtual reality baubles. Alan’s score was tremendous, rich and colorful, thrilling and heartfelt. And I was curious: have you deciphered the lyrics in ‘The Oasis,’ or do you know what language they are singing, if it is indeed a language? So far, I’ve not seen any analysis of the score’s choral passages.

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