Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline
When it comes down to it, Spielberg is the only director who could possibly have made this movie, warts and all, and it’s not just because of the monumental role he played in creating the pop culture that the Ernest Cline novel pays tribute to. There is no other director out there who so perfectly personifies the paradoxical ideology at the heart of this film. The central conflict in Ready Player One is that between the ideological artists and fans, united by the passion and regard they share for the cultural icons and artworks of the past, and the soulless, corporate capitalists who seek to exploit those same products and reap the profits. Mr. Spielberg is a champion for both sides. He is a paragon of artistry, a visionary celebrated for his works of sentimentality and imagination that have inspired so much of the nostalgia we feel for 80s and 90s pop culture, but he is also a shrewd businessman, widely credited for inventing the blockbuster and, in turn, the modern, commercial Hollywood machine that systematically recycles familiar, demographically-targeted brands and properties to produce profitable titles. Spielberg’s attempt to reconcile this dualism has resulted in his most fascinatingly imperfect film since A.I.
Technically speaking the movie is set in Columbus, Ohio, in the year 2045, where poor, orphaned kid Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in ‘the stacks’, a district of makeshift towers made up of trailer homes and vans. He spends every waking hour of his day plugged into his VR kit which transports him to the film’s actual setting, the virtual gaming world of OASIS. This is a realm of infinite possibilities where people can be and do whatever they want. You can ski the pyramids, hang out in a casino the size of a planet, or climb Mount Everest with Batman. OASIS is the creation of the late tech genius and pop culture obsessive James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Following his death, it was revealed that Halliday left behind a three-part quest to find the Easter Eggs hidden within the virtual world. The first person to find these three keys will inherit full ownership and control of OASIS. Wade, as his avatar Parzival, is one of the hundreds of gamers who have set out to solve Halliday’s puzzle, as are fellow ‘gunters’ Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki). Another party in the race to find the keys is IOI, an avaricious company led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) that wants to gain control of OASIS to exploit its profitability.
Perhaps the single biggest draw this film has is the innumerable crossovers and references brought over from movies, TV shows and video games of the 80s and 90s. The movie is almost like if Wreck-It Ralph were directed by Spinal Tap. It turns everything up to eleven and incorporates so many recognisable characters, items, and sounds that it is impossible to catch them all on the first viewing, never mind to list them. The movie features extended tributes to such films as The Shining and Saturday Night Fever, while other popular titles like The Breakfast Club and Goldeneye (the N64 game) are simply name-dropped. We see such vehicles as the DeLorean and the motorcycle from Akira get used in a virtual race where obstacles include King Kong and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, we see the chestburster from Alien and Chucky from Child’s Play get used as weapons, and we get to see more characters than we can count combat each other in battle royales including the Iron Giant, Freddy Krueger, Stormtroopers, the Spartans from Halo and Mecha-Godzilla. These references are all made so abundantly and are featured so prominently, fleetingly, and blink-and-you-missed-it-ly that any viewer who goes simply to enjoy this pop culture edition of Where’s Wally will find no shortage of phenomena to search for.
Therein lies a question though: does the nostalgic amusement park ride through 80s and 90s pop culture ultimately work for the film or against it? Even if we excuse the film for depicting a sanitised, mainstream version of the late 20th century that appeals mainly to the nostalgia of white, American, male ‘nerds’, what do the Easter Eggs actually bring to the film? On one hand, the references are made so indiscriminately and with such little connection to the story that it seems the vast majority are only there for the audience members to point at and say, “I understood that reference”. Even when some properties are given a greater level of focus, little attempt is made to actively explore what it is that fans enjoy about them, which can make its very inclusion feel quite hollow. The counterargument to this however is that the film’s use of pop culture must necessarily be secondary to the story and characters. It’s the narrative itself that we should be paying attention to and the familiar sights that pop up along the way are simply window dressing for fans to enjoy as we get there. Thus when Serenity from Firefly makes its appearance, the film opts not to dwell on it and explain its origin or significance. Instead it trusts that those who recognise it will enjoy it as it is, and those who don’t will simply have seen a cool spaceship. I think both sides are valid, which is partly why Ready Player One is such a mixed bag. While I wish I felt more of an emotional connection to this virtual world, the pleasure of spotting a reference from something you love is undeniable (I could barely stifle my laughter at the appearance of the Holy Hand Grenade).
Another way to look at it is this: does the movie work even if you don’t get 99% of the references featured? Does Ready Player One work on its own terms? Well, it depends on what you want from the film. For those looking for action and spectacle, the movie delivers. If there is one word to describe Ready Player One, it is ‘overwhelming’. Across its two-hour runtime the action is almost non-stop and often mindblowing. There is a thrilling race sequence, a surreal game of cat and mouse through the Overlook Hotel, and an epic, climatic battle that Spielberg masterfully cross-cuts with a chase in the real world. This is one of those cases where the lavish use of CGI is not only excusable, but welcome, since a virtual world such as OASIS is expected to look artificial and the action (at least when it occurs within the game) should be allowed to defy the laws of physics. Spielberg is allowed to push the boundaries of what he can get away with more than with any other film he’s ever made and the scope of his vision (along with trademark cinematographer Janusz Kamiński) is immense. However non-stop action, even when it is exceptionally well done, can only take you so far if there is nothing to engage you on an emotional level (even the two-hour car chase that was Mad Max: Fury Road had to make room for character development and compelling themes). This is where Ready Player One struggles.
As our protagonist the movie gives us Wade Wilson/Parzival, a victim of Harry Potter Syndrome (the movies, not the books) in that he is the least interesting character in his own story. He’s a blandly good-looking, brave and athletic ‘nerd’ with an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop culture and of Halliday’s life, which he employs in his quest for the hidden keys. Aiding him is Art3mis, Parzival’s equal in both knowledge and skill who, to the film’s credit, has more of a personality than just that of the love interest even if it still isn’t enough to be worthy of Cooke. With what little she’s given, Cooke proves herself capable of being both badass and sensitive and deserved a much larger role than being the object of a love story that can pretty much be reduced to male nerd wish fulfilment (a beautiful girl with low self esteem who plays video games and falls for the hero). Waithe also does well with her swaggering performance in what could have been a much more compelling role had more time been allowed for her. As an African-American woman playing an ethnically ambiguous virtual man, her character could have provided some genuinely fascinating insights about what it really means to create your own online persona. Halliday, in a strong, (intentionally) awkward and heartfelt performance by Rylance, might be the film’s only fully-realised and fleshed-out character. A subject of reverence and worship in both life and death, the film gradually shows him to be a more tragic and human character in an exploration of his past directly reminiscent of Citizen Kane.
As far as themes go, it’s clear that Ready Player One is not meant to be regarded simply as an entertaining and harmless trip down pop culture memory lane; Spielberg and Cline are trying to say something about the world as it is today and as it might be in a couple of decades. There is a message here about the internet’s capacity to bring us together but also the disconnect it can create between us and the outside world with all its problems. This is conveyed very well in one scene where we see Wade climbing his way down the trailer tower he lives in past all his neighbours whom, as we can see through their windows, are living their own virtual fantasies oblivious to everything that’s going on outside. Still, despite concluding that it is healthy and important for us to spend more time outside in the real world, the film nevertheless seems reluctant to explore the deeper flaws of the OASIS – the darker possibilities of unfiltered content and fantasies, issues with privacy and security, the toxic side of the fanboy culture that this movie so enthusiastically celebrates. The whole idea of this gamer revolution against corporate greed and authoritarianism also feels rather unconvincing coming from a multi-million dollar studio blockbuster, but might have worked had the movie been more willing to explore its own hypocrisies and contradictions.
I really did enjoy this film, all things considered. It is a fascinating film to watch, critique and discuss with others and it’s also an intriguingly relevant film for both the right and the wrong reasons. Even when it doesn’t work, it’s interesting to consider how and why it doesn’t work. Some viewers will love it for its epic expression of adoration for nerdy pop culture while others will hate it for its hollow use of 80s and 90s references to score nostalgia points. Some viewers meanwhile will enjoy Ready Player One for the thrilling blockbuster that it us while others will deride it for the empty CGI spectacle that it also is. The movie isn’t any one thing and that is both its strength and its weakness. When it comes down to it, I think Ready Player One can be looked at as an experiment in nostalgia and storytelling. Having seen the result, I think it’s a failed experiment, but an experiment that had to be made and a fascinating one all the same.