As a child of the ’80s, a movie critic who loves a well-placed pop-cultural allusion, and a reluctant admirer of Ernest Cline’s novel, I am basically the target demo for Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. I want to say that I loved the adaptation, but I didn’t.
But I didn’t hate it, either.
Ahead of the screening here at SXSW, Spielberg spoke about seeing all the pop-culture references out of the side windows but asking that we see the story through the front windshield, and that’s the problem with Ready Player One: It’s a lot more fun to peer through the driver’s side window than it is to look straight ahead. While the adaptation of Cline’s novel by Zak Penn actually improves upon the novel’s central storyline (and peppers in a lot of fun references not in the book), the movie still has the feel of late Spielberg’s work: The magic is not gone so much as it has been muted. He’s still hitting the same old, familiar notes, and while there is plenty of nostalgic appeal in that, there’s nothing fresh or exciting here, the amazing visuals and stellar CGI notwithstanding. Its biggest fault, however, may be that it lacks the heart Spielberg is so well known for — it’s there. It’s just buried under three tons of pop-cultural references, CGI artwork, and explosions. The screen is cluttered and busy, and it’s almost impossible to see through the front windshield.
Ready Player One is set in Ohio in 2045 in a time where the world has decided to give up on fixing its problems and has resigned to outlast them. That comes in the form of Oasis, a virtual world created by James Donovan Halliday (Mark Rylance). Most people in the real world live in small, dumpy trailers stacked on top of each other, and how they deal with the misery of reality is by living in this virtual Oasis nearly every minute of the day. In fact, it was designed as such: You can do everything there except eat and sleep. Most people don’t even have real-life relationships: They’re formed only in Oasis and between avatars who may or may not bear any resemblance to their operators.
In the midst of Oasis is a game designed by Oasis’ maker, Halliday. When he died in 2040, he decided that he would leave his entire fortune and ownership of Oasis to the first player to complete the game. To finish it, a player needs to have an expansive knowledge of 80’s pop culture and a keen understanding of how Halliday’s mind worked. There are three keys one must collect before finding the winning easter egg at the end of the game.
After five years of searching, Wade Watts (Tyler Sheridan) — who plays under the avatar Parzival — is the first to find a key. In his quest to find the other keys, he and his virtual-world clan develop a strong friendship within the game that eventually extends to the outside of the game, as well. However, they are confronted by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the head of a large corporate outfit attempting to win the game and use Oasis for nefarious gain. He has hundreds of researchers and players competing in the game to defeat Parzival, while Sorrento also begins a campaign to kill Wade Watts and his friends in the real world before they can finish the virtual game.
The bulk of the movie, however, takes place inside Oasis, which means that most of the movie is populated by CGI avatars running through what is essentially an extravagant, complicated maze of pop-culture references. Don’t get me wrong: They’re cool, especially a huge sequence that sees our avatars running through a souped-up version of The Shining. But it also says something about the movie that the best parts involve recognizing the allusions: It often plays like a museum of 80’s cultural artifacts than an actual movie. “Hey! Look! Iron Giant! Look over there, it’s the DeLorean! Is that a Van Halen song?!” Those sort of cultural references also creates a demographic problem: Is this movie aimed at teenagers — many who may not get a lot of the references (how many 12-year-olds have seen The Shining?) — or their parents, many who may not care that much about what is essentially a video-game movie.
That, ultimately, is what Ready Player One feels like: Watching avatars play a really cool video game designed for Dads. We barely see the humans, and when we do, it’s mostly behind VR goggles (weirdly, T.J. Miller, who plays one of the villains, is never seen, only heard, and you kind of wonder why they didn’t just replace him with another voice actor after the sexual assault allegations). There’s a love story here between Parzival and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and their real-life counterparts, but it’s hard to generate a lot of chemistry between two avatars who spend the bulk of their time fighting off corporate drones. Indeed, the only character that feels real in any sense is Halliday, thanks to another strong performance from Mark Rylance (whose performance transcends the fact that he doesn’t look the part, at all).
Despite its faults, however, I really didn’t dislike Ready Player One, although it is a movie that benefits greatly from being seen on the big screen with a large and receptive crowd that cheers at every pop-culture reference. I suspect that in most other viewing arrangements the film would fall flat. It’s a collection of old relics that need a large audience to bind them together with their enthusiasm. It fetishizes a time that really wasn’t all that great unless you were a well-off white boy, and to be honest, I’m not all that keen on 1980’s Pop-Culture MAGA. Ultimately, if you take away all the member grapes, Ready Player One is just a slick, expensive cartoon adventure with little heart and even less to say.
(Ready Player One premiered at the 2018 SXSW Conference.