When Steven Spielberg announced back in 2015 that he’d signed on to direct an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s best-selling novel “Ready Player One,” reaction was mixed at best. Spielberg’s participation made a certain sense; Cline’s book is an ode to nerd culture of every stripe, and among the geeky iconography it celebrates are countless properties the filmmaker himself had a hand in creating.
But despite its popularity, the novel’s reputation has dimmed since being published in 2011, as people soured on its decidedly male geek point of view and detractors accused Cline of propping up clichéd storytelling with hollow references to (mostly 80’s) culture, movies, video games, books, and music. Trailers did little to alleviate fears that the film would be much the same, though there was still reason for hope: if anyone could bring out greatness in lackluster material, it was Spielberg. Which is why it’s disappointing to find that as a film, “Ready Player One” isn’t as bad as some feared, but it’s not as good as it had the potential to be, either.
While the film does indeed offer an endless parade of references, Spielberg and screenwriter Zak Penn succeed in keeping focus on the story, never allowing the narrative to descend into the numbing shopping list style of Cline’s prose. It’s possible to appreciate the story even if you don’t understand every reference you’re bombarded with (though if you see it with an audience, be prepared to hear everyone around you audibly identify the ones they get). Of course, that only emphasizes how derivative the story it’s telling really is.
The film’s set in Columbus, Ohio circa 2045, in a dystopian future where citizens flee their real-life troubles by escaping into a massive virtual world known as the OASIS. The founder of the OASIS is the late James Halliday (a wonderful Mark Rylance), who revealed after his death that he’d built a scavenger hunt into his creation; a “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”-esque contest. The first person to solve his clues and find his golden Easter egg will inherit complete ownership of the OASIS.
Our hero is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a poor orphan who lives in “The Stacks,” a slum-like trailer park where the homes are piled on top of each other like Jenga towers. But in the OASIS, Wade is an adventurous “gunter” (egg hunter), the name given to those who dedicate themselves to cracking Halliday’s puzzles.
Wade and his friends Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki), and Sho (Philip Zhao) spend their every waking minute logged in, hoping to get even one step closer to the ultimate prize. Eventually they’re joined by Wade’s crush object, another gunter named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who becomes his love interest.
Included amongst their rival competitors are the employees of Innovative Online Industries (I.O.I.), a sinister corporation run by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who wants to exploit the OASIS for his own profit. Sorrento’s ruthless quest for control turns deadly, as his pursuit spills out into the real world. Soon it’s up to Wade and his friends to save the OASIS from his nefarious clutches. The commodification of fan culture by corporate entities is something the film never bothers to really interrogate, despite its own role in doing precisely that.
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Most of “Ready Player One” takes place within the digital world of the OASIS, which makes sense; it’s where Spielberg is able to let his imagination loose in a world without any rules or physical constraints. But it also leads to a film lacking in real human connection, which is a problem when that turns out to be one of the story’s key themes.
There are some inventive visuals throughout; I liked the endless, darkened hallways of the “library,” where gunters are able to peer through windows at video footage of Halliday’s life, combing through key moments for clues, including his relationship with his friend and business partner, Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg).
Your enjoyment of “Ready Player One” depends on how much you ask from your sci-fi action-adventure stories. It’s a fun ride while it lasts, but once you dig even an inch beneath its surface problems begin to arise.
On one hand, the book — and by extension the film — are intended as a love letter to pop culture.
But the characters’ obsessive, encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture ephemera is how they distinguish a “true fan” from the “haters.” This mindset can’t help but feel reminiscent of the kind of cultural gatekeeping that gave rise to the toxic Gamergate movement, and the tribalism in fandoms that often makes the internet such an unbearable place to visit.
Also on the subject of toxic masculinity, Sorrento’s chief henchman within the Oasis is named i-R0k, and voiced by comedian T.J. Miller. He’s the only key character in the film whose real-life counterpart we never see. It’s impossible to say whether this was a deliberate decision on the part of its makers, but considering the accusations of sexual misconduct and assault that have been leveled at Miller, his presence — even in vocal form — can’t help but cast a shadow on things.
While it’s nice that Wade’s companions are a culturally diverse group, it’s worth asking why an anonymous white dude has to be its center, especially when we’ve gotten that same story told so many, many times before.
The narrative dips into adolescent fantasy since it is, after all, a story about an average teen boy who saves the world and finds the love of a beautiful woman along the way. Art3mis (Samantha in the real world) is impossibly perfect: skilled and resourceful, conventionally pretty, and able to understand every reference Wade tosses out. Of course, she’s also “damaged,” with a birthmark on her face; an imperfection that exists just so Wade can assure her that he’s a sensitive enough guy to look past that and appreciate her beauty.
Spielberg can be a thoughtful filmmaker, and throughout the film there are traces of self-critique — about the creator’s relationship to their creations and their impact (for good or for ill) on culture — but the film never takes the time to really engage with those ideas.
He’s also one who knows how to craft a crowd-pleasing entertainment, and the action sequences are where the viewer truly feels the presence of a master like Spielberg behind the lens. Despite the cacophony of chaos and destruction, there’s a focus and a clarity to their staging that assures they never descend into being just an overwhelming wall of noise and sound.
But even Spielberg can’t bring out the heart of “Ready Player One.” The film gives us endless references and callbacks to classic pop culture, though it never gets at the meaning behind the fandom — it can’t identify the reasons why our favorite elements of pop culture have the ability to speak to us in ways few other things can. Which is a shame. If Spielberg had found a way to inject even a bit of the warmth, wonder, and intelligence we associate with some of his best-loved films, this might have been something truly special.