Few filmmakers understand the power of nostalgia like Steven Spielberg. The famed director understands how the past, and how we view the past, informs our present, and it plays into his strengths as a sensationalist and a sentimentalist. Spielberg would seem like an almost perfect fit for Ready Player One, the film adaptation of the beloved sci-fi novel by Ernest Cline which features an onslaught of pop culture references, mostly rooted in the ‘80s. Ahead of its release, Ready Player One was the subject of much mockery (and rightfully so) for the nostalgic-heavy elements of its marketing, which seemed to present the concept of a movie that couldn’t stand on its own two legs. But this is Steven Spielberg we’re talking about and he’s one of the greatest at his craft for a reason, so it would be wrong to write off Ready Player One based solely on its marketing. Having seen Ready Player One, I can say that it’s Spielberg’s sloppiest film since Hook, but still has enough moments that transcend simple nostalgia to make it worthwhile even if it is an uneven thrill ride.
Novelist Ernest Cline and veteran screenwriter Zak Penn adapt Cline’s novel, bringing with them plenty of nods to pop culture past while creating a rather complex world to the screen thanks to Spielberg’s visually gifted mind. However, the density of the plotting does inhibit Ready Player One from really bring forth its more wondrous elements because the world-building and characters of the film takes a backseat to the plot.
The year is 2045 and Columbus, Ohio is one of the world’s fastest growing cities. People are consumed with The Oasis, a virtual reality wonder world created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance). The multiple denizens of The Oasis don whatever avatar comes to their mind and are able to traverse a variety of virtual worlds. Five years before, though, Halliday died and left behind a message offering control of The Oasis and Halliday’s holdings in his vastly wealthy company to the person who pieces together his clues and find the three hidden keys in The Oasis.
Those seeking the hidden keys are known as Gunters (a portmanteau of egg hunters). One of the Gunters is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a young man living in Columbus in a section known as The Stacks, a vertical trailer park. Wade goes by the name Parzival and travels across The Oasis with his clan consisting of Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao), and Daito (Win Morisaki). Wade studies the life and pop culture obsessions of Halliday in the hopes of deciphering the clues he’s left behind, which he hopes to utilize in the race which is the first challenge Halliday left behind, a race nobody has ever finished in over five years. It’s in the race that Wade (or Parzival) meets Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), another Gunther whom Wade takes an immediate liking to. While the Gunters search, the corporation IOI, led by the sleazy corporatist Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelson), employs an army of people in search of the keys in order to gain control of The Oasis and turn it into a massive for-profit enterprise. Sorrento will use any devious mean necessary to get what he wants.
Because there’s so much going on, from the history of The Oasis to the current battle for control of the virtual world, the characters wind up getting the short end of the stick. Ready Player One is much more about the virtual world than the characters in the real world, and Spielberg does struggle in evenly weaving between the two worlds. While the spectacle is there and quite overwhelming because it’s relentless, Ready Player One doesn’t have much of an emotional core to make you care about what’s happening within the bombastic action. The characters exist entirely on a surface level. Never does Ready Player One explore the duality in its characters despite the fact that they exist in a virtual reality where these characters don completely manufactured personas.
Even there isn’t much of an emotional core to the spectacle of Ready Player One, Spielberg is still a master of crafting sensational set pieces, even in the virtual world. The first big set piece of the film is a race for the first key and it’s a thrilling sequence even if entirely digitized. The cars, some of which are iconic vehicles from pop culture, zoom about this virtual city as the T-Rex from Jurassic Park chases them and the final boss of this nigh-impossible race is King Kong. Part of me wishes there were more practical elements within this entirely computer generated sequence, but Spielberg can craft a thrilling, visceral race regardless of setting, even through a digital landscape.
The action is loud and constant, as are the pop culture references. Sometimes the references are blatant and in your face, repeated to a point where you’re ready to just say, “Yeah, I get it!” Sometimes the pop culture references are on the periphery, allowing the set pieces to exist on their own as your eyes scan the screen in hopes of figuring out just how many references are crammed into the frame. There is one sequence in Ready Player One that pretty much makes the movie worthwhile. Our heroes enter into another well-known film, and it results in an immersive, inventive sequence unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I’m sure that scene will be the most discussed aspect of Ready Player One for years to come.
Ready Player One is the ultimate nerd fantasy in that it’s a world where knowledge of pop culture trivia is basically a currency that aide you in your quest to get the girl and earn riches beyond your wildest dreams. It’s an uneven film from a master filmmaker that utilizes nostalgia in inventive ways, but the film is much more focused on commenting on the need to stay grounded in reality than how we interact with pop culture from the past. Ready Player One is a slight distraction, a pop culture-infused blockbuster that struggles to consistently stand on its own. When it does stand on its own, Ready Player One is a fun piece of pop entertainment. When it doesn’t, it’s a barrage of references that may grow a bit tiresome as you’re waiting for the next big set piece. Don’t worry, though, the next big sequence is just around the corner.