Ready Player One defied my expectations, but not entirely in a good way. I went in assuming that the self-indulgent reference-palooza would be tempered by Spielberg’s mastery of the popcorn flick. The man defined the modern blockbuster movie after all, and his prolific career has been marked by his consistent ability to bring drama and tenderness to the big screen. Unfortunately, it feels as though this film adaptation buckles under the weight of its source material, blazing between plot points and story beats in a way that never allows the drama to simmer or find a clear cadence. Too much is packed into too little time, leaving the greater story a sequence of cliches. Surprisingly it was the bacchanalian feast of nerd references that ended up being my favorite aspect of the film, the self-indulgence reaching such levels of absurdity (hint: The Shining) that it became charming.
Ready Player One stars Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), or Parcival as he goes by online. He’s a poor kid who lives in “the stacks”, columns of trailer parks that reach into the sky of Columbus, Ohio. The world is in a dismal state in 2045, with vaguely discussed civil unrest serving as the backdrop for a world filled with poverty. The Oasis, a virtual reality game, serves as the populous’s escape from their grim existence. Its a vast expanse of interconnected digital worlds brimming with unlimited potential. The brainchild of Richard Halliday, an eccentric programmer, The Oasis acts as a social hub and major economic force. When Halliday eventually dies, he leaves the keys to his kingdoms for players to find in the world he created. The first person to find all three keys would inherit his stock in his company, valued in the billions, and thus inherit control over the future of the Oasis. Watts and his online friends set off on the Arthurian task of collecting these keys, as a cartoonishly evil mega-corporation chases at their heels.
The marketing for the film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s best-selling novel was sure to play up its bevy of nerd references. Youtubers had a field day with exposing the cavalcade of pop culture cameos, but based on the trailers alone it was hard to tell if the movie would manage to find its own identity. Although a lot of the properties included were favorites of mine, a movie defined by regurgitation didn’t seem very appealing to me. I bounced off the book for this very reason, the flow the of narrative constantly being interrupted by incessant odes to the glory of Robotron and other 80s arcade games that were before my time.
But in the end, the non-stop tidal wave of references felt less like a cynical marketing tool and more like a love letter to pop-culture in general. While it makes it near impossible to move out of the shadow of the things it’s referencing, The Oasis is an oddly cohesive place given the disparate parts it pulls together. From the endless war zone of Planet Doom, to the zero-gravity dance club The Distracted Globe, the different worlds within this VR paradise are visually imaginative and evoke the immersive sensation that characterizes many good video games. The animation work here is top notch from a technical perspective, with impressively detailed spaces that feel alive. This vivid illustration justifies why its denizens have such a singular obsession with it. Although many of the references boil down to just easter eggs, a lengthy foray into one of the great horror films is a thoroughly outrageous and undeniably fun homage. Similarly, the bombastic climax is so chock full of ridiculous moments (spoiler: Mecha-Godzilla vs the Iron Giant, sure why not?) that its hard not bathe in the reverence for the source material.
While the Oasis is an imaginative virtual pastiche, the time spent outside of it is far less interesting. As previously mentioned, many of Ready Player One’s faults lie in its archetypical narrative, which mostly fails to distinguish itself from the 80’s pop-corn flicks that it is so reverent of. Wade Watts comes off as a fairly boring nerd-surrogate, and the big-bad, Nolan Sorrento is merely a reference to the one-dimensional movie villains of yore. While its referential structure isn’t inherently problematic, it simply lacks the heart of those old great blockbusters. By blazing through the story outside of the Oasis, it becomes hard to form any attachment to Watts or his struggle. Its been proven that simple Hollywood tales can be packed with emotional resonance, but that Spielberg touch feels mostly missing in this case.
The most distinctly Spielberg element of the drama is the empathetic presentation of the Oasis’s creator, James Halliday(Mark Rylance). Through the diagetic flash-backs, we see the portrait of a man defined by loneliness and social anxiety. In just a few scenes, it deftly summarizes one of the core reasons why so many people find solace in gaming, as an escape. Its not the diabolical villain who forces a change in our protagonist, but his distant mentor who communicates his regret from the grave.
While it may not live in the pantheon of great blockbusters, Spielberg’s latest finds a way to coherently stitch together its surplus of references to create a modern 80’s movie. It lacks the gumption and charisma of its fore bearers, but it still delivers an outlandish spectacle that deserves to be seen on the big screen.
Image Source: ReadyPlayerOneMovie.com