Ready Player One | 2018
By its very nature, Steven Spielberg’s film of Ernest Cline’s hugely successful novel spends much of its time in a virtual environment. Since it was made at the Leavesden Studios, Hertfordshire, in the UK – yes, home of the Harry Potter movies – its real-world locations are found not in ‘Columbus, Ohio’ where the story is set, but in London and, perhaps surprisingly, Birmingham in the West Midlands.
Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) escapes from a dismal existence with his Aunt Alice and her abusive boyfriend in the Stacks – the towering, chaotic shanty-town of 2045 – into the OASIS, an online fantasy realm of wish-fulfillment.
The Stacks are the digital extension of an outdoor set built on Leavesden’s backlot and the Studio itself provided the cavernous interiors of IOI (Innovative Online Industries), an ambitious corporation hungry to take over the digital creation using three ‘keys’ leading to a vital Easter Egg left by the OASIS’s late creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) which can be discovered by only the most dedicated online gamer.
The sleek office of IOI, with its glass walkways and jauntily slanted wall, where CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) oversees teams of geeks combing through Halliday’s beloved 70s and 80s pop culture for clues, is Holland Park School, Airlie Gardens, West London W8.
Founded in 1958 as a progressive comprehensive school, the smart catchment area of Holland Park, west of Kensington Gardens, included a fair share of political media celebs. It soon earned the rather sneering nickname of the 'Socialist Eton'. The new building used in the film, which divided opinion by looking more like an airport terminal than a place of learning, dates from 2012.
The humbler offices of OASIS in its early days, and the cafeteria where Wade studies the recorded interaction between Halliday and his one-time business partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) is Solaris House, the former HQ of Sun Microsystems HQ, Sun Park, Minley Road, northwest of Farnborough in Surrey.
The first, and seemingly impossible challenge, a car chase through a crazily fantastic version of ‘New York’, teems with pop culture references you’d still be spotting after a dozen viewings along with blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em nods to classic film locations.
I’m sure there are more, but you can glimpse the marquee of the Times Square cinema where Jack Slater IV is premiering in Last Action Hero; the red neon sign of Ratner’s, the now-gone Manhattan restaurant featured in The French Connection with the grand-daddy of all car chases; and the giant sign standing atop the Silvercup Studios in Queens (you can see it as you cross the Queensboro Bridge), which was the setting for the final rooftop confrontation in 1986’s Highlander.
Once Parzifal, Wade’s online avatar, discovers the first key he becomes the focus of attention for IOI. When he carelessly reveals his real name to co-gamer and major (virtual) crush Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), the corporation is onto him, with no qualms about destroying his home in the Stacks.
Rescued by a band of rebel gamers determined to prevent the soulless megacorp from gaining control of the OASIS, he finds himself being sheltered by Samantha – who happens to be the real world persona of Art3mis.
Somewhat unglamorously, the rooftop garden of the Rebellion’s safehouse from which they look out over the city of ‘Columbus’ is the roof of the old, now closed and empty, Typhoo Tea Factory on Bordesley Street, Digbeth in Birmingham.
There’s another dip into the OASIS as Parzifal and Art3mis follow up a lead provided by Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (this isn’t in the book and, to be honest, is a bit of self-indulgence by Spielberg, honouring his old friend and fellow director).
The virtual cinema, called The Overlook of course, playing a far-too-immersive version of the Kubrick classic, is modelled on the Senator Theatre in Baltimore, which hosts the 24-hour Hitchcock Fest in Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, and is where Elijah Wood watches King of the Rocket Men in Barry Levinson’s nostalgic Avalon.
When IOI sends out spy drones to track down Wade, they’re seen whizzing round the corner of Mary Ann Street into Livery Street, alongside the bridge carrying rail-lines from Moor Street Station, Birmingham.
The open-air street market where they recognise the tattooed guy buying groceries was created a couple of blocks to the north, outside Lionel House Car Park on Lionel Street, between Newhall Street and Summer Row.
The recognition leads IOI to the rebels’ hideout where Samantha is captured and Wade is lucky to escape.
There's a bit of a geographical leap here as the graffiti-covered alleyway onto which he crawls, and where he gets to meet the rest of the High-Five: Aech/Helen (Lena Waithe), Daito/Toshiro (Win Morisaki) and Sho/Akihide (Philip Zhao) in their US Postal Services van, is Fountayne Road, off Broad Lane, Seven Sisters, London N15.
Although this stretch of North London road was chosen for its lively street art, it seems the production team decided to use its own art which was subsequently painted out! Hollywood, huh? I suppose this was something to do with copyright.
Fleeing the IOI goons, Helen drives the High-Five’s van under the towering brick railway arch on Floodgate Street, Digbeth, back in Birmingham, and into the yard alongside Ashton Engineering Co, beneath the rail lines, which is where they lie low.
Oddly, this yard is now emblazoned with much more street art than is seen in the film.
Those IOI drones don’t seem keen to move far from Livery Street in Birmingham (once you recognise that junction with Mary Ann Street, it becomes quite familiar), but when F’Nale (Hannah John-Kamen) sees crowds of visor-wearing virtual fighters battling unseen foe outside ‘Starbucks’, that’s on Moorfields just south of Ropemaker Street, Moorgate, London EC2. And that is a blatant bit of product placement – there is no Starbucks on Moorfields.
The fighting kids, outside ‘Okagami’ are just around the corner, outside the entrance to 29 Ropemaker Street, London EC2. This is an increasingly popular area for movies, directly across from the ‘Manhattan’ sidewalk where (spoiler alert!) the Ancient One plummets to earth in Marvel’s Doctor Strange.
Also just across Ropemaker Street, the huge ‘eyelid’ entrance to the CityPoint Building becomes the entrance to IOI from which Samantha escapes after disabling the forcefield shield.
Samantha isn’t in London long. The High-Five’s Postal Van picks her up back on Lionel Street in Birmingham, which is the site where the outdoor market was earlier set up.
The ensuing chase with F’nale in pursuit is – yes – up and down good old Livery Street again, alongside the railway lines and arches, but once Sorrento joins the pursuit, the locale suddenly changes to the concrete supports beneath Gravelly Hill Interchange on the M6 Motorway northeast of central Birmingham, famously known as Spaghetti Junction for obvious reasons, which takes us back to the Stacks and resolution.