It’s impossible to competently argue against Steven Spielberg‘s filmography. He’s highly accomplished both commercially and critically, and he’s made some of Hollywood’s best and most memorable films across various genres with science fiction being front and center. From Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to Minority Report and A.I. Artificial Intelligence, his approach to sci-fi has always been about combining invigorating thrills, real emotion, and absolute wonder on screen to incredible effect.
Ready Player One doesn’t quite check the same boxes.
Welcome to Columbus, OH, the fastest growing city in the year 2045. The world is overpopulated and craving sweet release, and since the corn syrup riots ended the best fix comes from an online “game” called the Oasis. Think The Sims without bathroom emergencies or Second Life with stuff to actually do. People spend their days avoiding the real world, jacking in to the Oasis, and living virtually as the avatar of their choice in a new world modeled almost exclusively on the movies, TV shows, and games of the late 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Contests, social meet-ups, and more await those with time and money to spare. In-app purchases get you special objects, better weapons, and increased odds at solving the ultimate puzzle left behind by the Oasis’ recently deceased creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) — find the three hidden keys, take hold of the egg, and win ownership of the Oasis. Everyone’s on the hunt, but young Parzival aka Wade (Tye Sheridan) thinks he might succeed because not only is he Halliday’s biggest fan, but he’s also the right kind of fan.
Where to start, where to start…
Ready Player One is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) for the mentally and emotionally stunted. Its live-action sequences are capably directed, its CG world is flashy, colorful, and loud, and it does the absolute minimum leg-work to get viewers excited by unleashing a steady stream of references for them to brag about “getting.” Battle ostriches from Joust, the spaceship from Space: 1999, a giant robot from some show I should apparently be embarrassed to say I don’t recognize or remember (no not The Iron Giant, the TV one). The power to save the world begins in knowing all of this shit by heart. Not loving it — knowing it.
The overwhelming majority of the film simply uses these pop culture references, characters, and factoids as touch points — Remember this? Cool! Let’s move on! — while offering no real weight or significance to that knowledge. Why are these decades the only ones in the Oasis? Because Halliday grew up with them, and everyone else is too lazy to think for themselves. Wade describes the Oasis as a world “limited only by your own imagination,” but it’s one where people take on avatars and costumes created by others and pay corporations to use their products. There’s zero imagination required, and unfortunately that holds true for far too much of the film. It arguably extends off the screen as well to Spielberg as director — as the creator of much of these decades’ most memorable pop culture moments he’s too obvious a choice to direct, especially as the film gives nods to some of his own films.
Instead of wonder we get trademarked characters, but rather than imbue them with personality and wit like in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) they’re merely skins worn by boring people bored with their lives. Knock 2015’s Pixels all you want — it deserves it — but at least that film is aware enough to essentially cast these mindless time-killers as dangerous and deadly. There’s nothing remotely approaching a serious commentary here, and its basic attempts are insulting to viewer intelligence.
Oh, we should go outside more and spend time with loved ones? No shit. You should tell people you care about that you care about them? Obviously. These are lessons for pre-teens, not adults who grew up enjoying video games and Spielberg movies. It touches on economic anxiety by magnifying the problem of in-app purchases into an expense that leads people into debt and lands them in work camps run by IOI, but it makes its CEO Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) the villain instead of laying any blame with the consumers themselves. And not for nothing, but if Halliday is such a good guy — he’s lauded universally as the greatest man to have ever lived — then why didn’t he ban or limit these third-party companies in the first place?
Most of the film takes place in the Oasis, but it would have benefited from following its own advice and spending more time in the outside world if only to explain it better. Opening narration makes it sound like a dystopia of sorts, and Wade’s neighborhood — the Stacks, named as such because it’s a community of trailers and shipping containers built atop one another — paints a picture of people in near-apocalyptic degrees of poverty. Quick cutaways elsewhere suggest otherwise, though, as we see kids in classrooms and people walking around shop-filled streets like everything is perfectly normal. It’s a poorly designed real world in favor of focusing on the pop culture bukkake scene that is The Oasis.
Ready Player One ultimately comes down to illusions not of our own making but of our own consumption, and the Oasis itself is only the most obvious piece of deception. It suggests you deserve a reward for choosing these artificial lives over your real one. Avatars of Parzival’s online friends unsurprisingly turn out to be inaccurate representations of their real selves for nearly everyone but his love interest, the beautiful, daring, and small-framed Art3mis aka Samantha (Olivia Cooke) who literally warns him that she’s not like that at all in reality. Did I mention she’s played by Olivia Cooke. One character’s great love is spoken of repeatedly, but he shows it by placing her virtual self in an endless nightmare awaiting rescue. The film’s idea of love — ownership, control, and a heroic rescue — is essentially Mario saving the Princess.
Of course, all of that said, this is still a Spielberg joint. He’s capable of delivering duds when the focus is maudlin or overly whimsical (Always, Hook), but he’s also incapable of totally botching big-screen entertainment. To that end the visuals in the Oasis may be derivative in content, but they’re often fantastic in execution. From the street race interrupted by King Kong and Jurassic Park’s T-Rex to epic land battles involving magic, lasers, and good old-fashioned upper cuts, there’s eye-candy aplenty. The film’s major success, though, is a sequence that sees our heroes enter a certain Stanley Kubrick film. It’s the singular time where the film allows its characters to interact with a creation rather than simply wear its skin, and you’ll immediately wish more of the two hour and twenty minute long film went this route.
Like Ernest Cline‘s source novel, Ready Player One will succeed commercially because we’re eternal suckers for nostalgia even when presented in the laziest way possible. Will it be remembered as fondly as any one of the properties it vomits onto the screen for seconds at a time? Who knows. I’m going outside for a hike.