Ready Player One was a best-selling book that established a future world built upon the pop-culture artifacts of the 1980s, a future that celebrates and looks back to the past, to a halcyon childhood of classic and not-so-classic video games, movies, comics, and music. It was no surprise that author Ernest Cline’s novel would become a success, as we’ve been in a full-blown 80s nostalgic renaissance for quite some time now. When living legend Steven Spielberg got aboard as director, it seemed like fate. As a non-reader, my worry was could the big-budget, Hollywood version of this movie, lead by a Hollywood master, be more than the sum of its parts, more than the nostalgia and pop-culture references? I feared the finished product would be Avatar meets VH1’s I Love the 80s (“Hey, remember that thing? We do too.”). My fears were overblown, but then so is Ready Player One a bit, an entertaining vision that glides by with little else but vigor.
In the future, most of humanity spends their days living out fantasies and dreams in the Oasis, a virtual reality hub with different worlds, games, and features, allowing players to design their own avatars and their own adventures. The Oasis was created by Halliday (Mark Rylance), a reclusive genius who also programmed a contest upon his death. Whoever finds three hidden keys would win ownership of the Oasis. Wade (Tye Sheridan) is a regular kid living in Columbus, Ohio (woot, represent!) but when he’s in the VR world he’s Parzival, a more confident and assertive player. He’s fascinated and intimidated by Artemis (Olivia Cooke), a fierce competitor who brushes aside others. Together they team up to thwart the evil corporation IOI (Innovative Online Industries) run by Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). They want to own the Oasis, riddle it with ads and product placement, and restrict the freedoms to a lucrative caste system. Parzival and Artemis must find the keys, stay ahead of IOI and their team of super players, and hide their real-world identities before they can be unplugged one way or another.
Ready Player One is a first-rate action spectacle from one of cinema’s masters of spectacle. Spielberg unleashes his incredible imagination with the full-force of a pretend world where any thrill-seeking adventure can happen. You can feel his genuine sense of joy at getting a chance to play in such a big world where anything is possible. This is best encapsulated with a race that challenges all laws of physics and good sense. The obstacles are extreme and as the cars careen into one another, King Kong trounces the track, and various nasty surprises await, it becomes a propulsive, thrilling, and ridiculously entertaining set piece. The last time I can recall a Spielberg film feeling this downright fun, first and foremost, was perhaps 2011’s Tin Tin, an underrated adventure. Spielberg has a delightful comic touch when it comes to constructing creative and satisfying action set pieces, laying the foundation for future payoffs and complications. There’s an extended sequence where the players have to infiltrate the Overlook hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and it’s glorious. It’s the most sustained pop-culture reference and nostalgia point, but it actually lines up cleverly with a mission goal. The overpowering flurry of pop-culture references I was worried about never come to much more than momentary visual signifiers (“Look, he’s driving the car from Back to the Future. Look, he’s got the Holy Hand Grenade.”). You don’t need the background to enjoy the film, and the references are just a bonus for those nostalgic aficionados in-the-know. It rises above the hefty anchor of nostalgia to tell its own story on its own epic terms.
With that being said, Ready Player One is also little more than its eye-catching spectacle. There’s very little substance here to be had. The film is 140 minutes long and feels breathless, allowing nary a moment to catch contemplate, deepen the characters, or explore the outside world in greater detail. The movie is packed with expository plot beats about the inner workings of the Oasis and every time it hops to a new level it resets and we have to learn more rules and surprises. It kept me entertained, don’t get me wrong, but when you come out the other end you can look back and see little. It’s a thrill ride first and foremost but one that feels entirely ephemeral. There’s so little to hold onto that generally matters. It’s the film equivalent of fast food, a tasty jaunt but something not exactly made from the best ingredients. It even takes that’s 80s pop-culture appreciation and transforms into feeling like an 80s movie, complete with an ending where even the bad guy gets his just deserts in a comical low-stakes way. We’re watching a bunch of teenagers fight against The Man taking control of their play space and corporatizing it. That feels like the VR equivalent of, “We gotta save the rec center from those evil land developers who just don’t get the communal power of art, man.”
I didn’t really get a sense of any of the characters and it felt like the “be whoever you want to be” freedom of the Oasis could have been better employed. Take for instance Artemis, who in real life is Samantha and has a blotchy birthmark on her face. I understand that she’s self-conscious about the mark but she still looks like Olivia Cooke (a pretty girl with a birth mark still looks like a pretty girl). The romantic relationship between Parzival and Artemis feels like user projection, falling for the cool, kickass gamer girl. She rightly retorts, “You think you’re in love. You don’t know me, only what I show you.” This stand for female agency regrettably melts away and Artemis/Sam fall into that familiar dance of emotions. The side characters feel more like second or third tier team members on a spy mission, offering little variance. I didn’t really get a sense of any of the central characters from a personality standpoint except for their loving appreciation of pop-culture, which is then morphed into a pop-culture artifact itself. The larger mystery of Halliday’s past regrets is rather predictable and amounts to little more than “seize the day,” which is also a pretty 80s message if you think about it.
Another aspect hampering the impact is the dire lack of stakes. As far as I can tell, the biggest loss the players experience is their in-game credits and achievements. They may have spent months or years accumulating those, but if they were to disappear there’s no real larger harm to anyone. It’s a mere inconvenience, the same thing with dying in the game. I was waiting for another step where dying in the game would translate into the real world (“You die in the game, you die for real!”). They even introduce a fancy VR suit you can wear to literally feel the action of the game, though why anyone would want to feel the pain inflicted via a video game is beyond me (the pleasure I can understand). When we watch characters fight against incredible odds, the most that’s at stake is having to regenerate at a different location and get back into battle. It makes the struggle feel less realized and certainly less substantial. It plays into the already ephemeral spectacle. I heard from my seat neighbor, who had read Cline’s novel, that (book spoilers) one of the players is killed by the evil corporation by finding out where he lives and throwing him out a building. The movie needed a moment like that. Imagine, Sorrento being confronted by Parzival and friends, and he points to one and says, we know where you live, we’re breaking down the door now. The guy turns around, hearing the sounds coming from his real-life environment. Then Sorrento gets a radio call about breaching the room and a gun is placed against the character’s head. His scream is cut short as the sound of a gunshot echoes and his avatar disappears. Then Sorrento points to the remaining players and says we know where each of you live. That scene would have raised the stakes for the final act, not to mention be a sly nod to The Matrix. Unfortunately, even when the bad guys are trying to kill people, the stakes feel small.
I think part of the lower stakes is also because we never get a clear sense of life outside the Oasis. If just about every human being is wired into this VR world, how is all that electricity being generated to power this experience? What is the economy of this world? What do people do to subsist in their homes? Is money related to in-game achievements? These loyalty pods, which are essentially a twenty-first century debtor’s prison that profits off virtual slave labor, how are they legal? What exactly is the legal system like in this world? Also, we see people running outdoors with their VR helmets on. Won’t they run into traffic or a building or some kind of obstruction? I never understood how this world operated. Perhaps that’s the reason Spielberg spent a solid 75 percent in the Oasis, keeping our minds occupied with shiny things before we can begin to question.
Sheridan (Mud) is a handsome and likeable leading man, though he just came from another movie where he wears a visor over his eyes (X-Men: Apocalypse). He leaves enough of a favorable impression to make you wish he had more going on. The same with Cooke (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) who plays the spunky, spiky love interest and experienced gamer girl. It’s a role that Cooke performs nonchalantly, evoking the ethos of being enviably cool and thus desirable to legions of gamer boys. Cooke is capable of much more, as evidenced recently by her phenominal performance in Thoroughbreds, but I’m happy that she’s getting a big platform and from Spielberg too. The other castmates add a needed sense of diversity to this future world, though I was wondering why the pop-culture references were almost entirely American. Surely Halliday would have been the kind of guy that was entranced by the gee-whiz cool artifacts of other cultures like Japan. The best actor is Mendelsohn (Rouge One) who seems to be carving out a fine career in Hollywood movies as an officious middle-manager villain. He’s the right kind of slimy while still being weak at his core that fits so perfectly for these kinds of roles. Sorrento also employs a fierce female enforcer (Killjoy’s Hannah John-Karmen) with some sharp bangs who reminded me of Luv from Blade Runner 2049. Even more 80s-ness!
With Spielberg at the helm, it feels like he’s the perfect person to bring Ready Player One to the big screen considering he’s one of the biggest progenitors of our 80s nostalgia. It’s a loving homage to pop-culture without being suffocated by the cumulative artifacts of pop-culture. It’s a rousing, imaginative adventure with some terrific special effects and stunning action set pieces. It’s an enjoyable trifle of a movie, lacking larger substance, characterization, and sustainable stakes. It feels too light, but then maybe that’s another argument for its adherence to the feel of 80s movies, where problems could be solved with dance-offs or choice montages set to Jefferson Starship. Ready Player One should delight fans of the book and even those ignorant of all its myriad references. Whether audiences cherish this alongside those keepsakes of the past is another matter.
Nate’s Grade: B