Early on as Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), or Parzival as he is known online, is describing the vast and seemingly limitless online world known as Oasis he suggests the possibility of being able to go ice climbing with Batman as one of the great benefits of this virtual world, if you should so choose. In another early scene our hero Parzival rides his Back to the Future-inspired Delorean nobly into battle against none other than the iconic monster-ape King Kong. Still another scene finds us within a pop-culture inception as a chestburster from Alien pops out of Goro from the videogame Mortal Kombat. The degree by which you find these developments awesome or eye-roll inducing will be a direct correlation to how much you will enjoy Ready Player One, the latest movie from the mind of Steven Spielberg.
The story is a pop culture fever dream: In 2045 the world has devolved into slum-like urban population centres but most people hardly notice because the world’s citizens spend almost all of its time living in the Oasis, a virtual world that promises not only the possibility of limitless experiences but the chance to truly be whoever you would like to be. This results in a virtual world populated by a pastiche of pop culture references from the 80s, 90s, and the turn of this century (at last count people more studious than I had counted 138 easter eggs and pop culture references in this movie).
The man responsible for the Oasis is the near deified James Halladay (Mark Rylance) who, along with his partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), created this enormous and lucrative playground for the world. When we enter the story it has been five years since Halladay died and as his last request he has hidden in the Oasis a scavenger hunt in which the first person to complete it will find themselves the heir not only to his fortune but they will also be given full control of the programming of the Oasis.
It is here that our hero Parzival enters the story. He is one of the few cultural media obsessives (a group called “Gunters” which is short for “Egg Hunters”) who has made it their sole goal to understand the life and interests of Halladay in order to find the crumbs to the trail that he has left behind (inspiring yet another slew of references from pop culture’s past). While each of these Gunters act more or less independently they are united by their mutual hatred of a group of professionally hired Egg Hunters called “Sixers” who work for the evil video game conglomerate Innovative Online Institute (IOI) whose CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendehlson) plans to use this control of the Oasis for his own profit and gain. In order to stop this from happening Parzival joins forces with his best friend Aech, his future love interest Artemis (Olivia Cooke), and siblings Sho and Daito to try and get to the end of their quest before the evil “Sixers” do.
With this simple premise, it falls on three things to make this movie stand out from the slew of other CGI-filled blockbusters out there: the action set-pieces, and the pop culture references. Fortunately the action in this movie is an unadulterated delight. It is truly a joy to see Steven Spielberg, for whom we owe so much of our pop culture from the 80s and 90s, roll up his sleeves and dive headlong into a pure entertainment blockbuster. There is a racing scene in the middle that stands as one of Spielberg’s best choreographed sequences as he films an absolutely frantic but expertly staged race. One almost gets the sense that Spielberg has suffered enough of badly choreographed action scenes from the young whippersnapper directors who have followed in his wake and decided to set them straight and show them how its supposed to be done. This same kinetic energy propels the best parts of the movie forward, filling the screen with such viscerally entertainment that you don’t notice the flaws lurking belief.
While the action holds up its end of the bargain, it is in the pop culture references that the movie ultimately falters. There are simply too many of them and too often their appearance is meant to act as a proxy for human emotion. Of course this is not Spielberg’s problem entirely but rests in the source material. Ernest Cline, who also wrote the screenplay for this movie, commits the cardinal error of thinking that making a character interested in a lot of interesting pop culture automatically makes a person interesting. This error can also be applied to the book and to a lesser extent the movie. At one point there is an extended expositionary dialogue of John Hughes movies and which fictional school in them is better. It is the kind of dialogue that close friends have over a few beers, but interesting moviemaking this does not make. (Author’s note: I say this as someone who could find innumerous ways to casually drop a line from “Arrested Development” into a conversation, but I know that this skill and my innate knowledge of “Arrested Development” does not in fact make me more interesting and instead prompts eye-rolls from my loved ones.)
Moreover sometimes it is not clear if everyone involved even knows what makes the pop culture they are referencing great. There is an extended action sequence in a famous “haunted” location movie (which I won’t spoil here) that is simultaneously great because it is such a faithful recreation of that movie’s set but also sacrilegious because it completely ignores all but its window dressing as a backdrop for a frantic action sequence which completely goes against the tone of the original movie (and would leave the original director rolling in his grave). Ultimately Ready Player One seems to use pop culture more as a name-dropping tool than a storytelling device which after the 50th reference starts reeking of a desperate attempt to try and appear cool (which as one already knows is a surefire way to be called uncool).
However what helps elevate the movie over the novel is that the pure vapidity of a pop culture regurgitation universe is also apparent to Spielberg Spielberg has in mind to portray virtual reality (and perhaps social media too) as the technological opiate of the masses in the way that it distracts the general populace from the dire real life circumstances they find themselves in. But if Spielberg is interested in these things, he doesn’t devote the time or space in the movie to develop this theme in a meaningful way. As quickly as he highlights the fact that Wade is absolutely nothing without his pop culture references he moves on to (admittedly) brighter and shinier things. This means that the few times Spielberg does take a stab at this theme it comes off as clumsy and slightly preachy. Still, the mere presence of these moments helps clue us in that the movie is at least a little bit self-aware of the hollow goals and values of this future society.
Still despite this movie’s big flaw, it is also clearly an entertaining ride. It is also perhaps the first good movie to capture the unique joy and frustration that is being a gamer. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that Ready Player One succeeds as a celebration and critique of the video game industry in much the same way that Spielberg’s Jurassic Park did for the theme park industry. It is also clear that whatever Spielberg’s faults, he has managed for close to five decades to figure out exactly what makes children and young adults tick. And this is a remarkable thing.
The movie is ultimately going to be a minor entry in Spielberg’s oeuvre when we tally up his career at a later date. But this is not to say that the film is bad. It is entertaining especially if you were a child like me to grow up in the 80s and 90s. It is a fanboy movie made by the ultimate fanboy director, but this is both a weakness and a strength. In trying to suggest that the uber-geek who passes all geekdom purity tests will be the hero of the story, the movie moves into pure wish-fulfilment fantasy for all the geeks (like me) who showed much more proficiency in front of a screen than we ever did in real life. Had the movie elegantly pushed against that wish-fulfilment fantasy it could’ve have approached something that is presciently relevant to our own screen-obsessed lives. That might have made the movie great. As it is however Ready Player One remains merely entertaining, and hollowly at that.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Zak Penn & Ernest Cline
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendehlson, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Hannah John-Kamen
Runtime: 140 minutes
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