The sell for Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One is a little like the sell for Jurassic Park, except instead of dinosaur shock and awe, it’s pop-culture nostalgia shock and awe.
So the T-rex from Jurassic Park is actually in there, along with King Kong, the Iron Giant, Lara Croft, Marty McFly’s time-traveling DeLorean and Adam West’s Batmobile, a notable weapon from the Alien franchise, an iconic setting from a celebrated horror movie, an ’80s-centric score that includes Van Halen, Tears for Fears and Joan Jett, and far, far too many video game and cinematic homages and Easter eggs to document, even if I saw the movie a dozen times, which would definitely be at least 10 times too many.
Worlds collide in Ready Player One in a digital mashup multiverse called the OASIS, a sci-fi virtual vale akin in its own way to J.M. Barrie’s Neverland or C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, a patchwork of disparate mythologies all hugger-mugger. (Barrie juxtaposes pirates, mermaids, fairies, American Indians and flying children; Lewis draws on Greco-Roman and Norse mythology, Hans Christian Andersen, Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame, Arthurian legend, Father Time and even Father Christmas, and, of course, the Bible.)
J.R.R. Tolkien detested such pastiches, but the sort of person who loves Tolkien for the encyclopedic depth of Middle-earth will often love the very different encyclopedic quality of Narnia — or the OASIS.
Ready Player One is a curator’s garden of delights, and if you love the sort of things that go into it and you don’t mind your carrots and peas touching (the way Tolkien did), this movie might be your candy store.
You know there’s a “but” coming, right?
The world of the OASIS exists in 2045 alongside an oppressive dystopian future from which the virtual reality of the OASIS is the only escape for most people.
Take our hero, a young orphan named Wade Watts (The Tree of Life’s Tye Sheridan), who lives in the high-rise trailer-park slums of what used to be Columbus, Ohio, with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend (Susan Lynch and Ralph Ineson).
Wade’s life is lived as Parzival, a digital character with a shock of fair hair like The Legend of Zelda’s Link (circa Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, twin hanks flowing like curtains framing his forehead) and a sword emblem on the back of his jacket in token of his Arthurian nom de jeu.
And here’s the thing: Ready Player One, adapted from Ernest Cline’s novel by Zac Penn and Cline himself, wants to go all in on pop-culture nostalgia shock and awe in virtual-reality fantasy — but it also wants to leave us with the salutary notion that reality is, like, important, too (so kids, remember to unplug, go outside and interact with people in real life).
After all, reality is “the only place you can get a decent meal,” according to tech wizard James Halliday (Mark Rylance), co-creator of the OASIS. Well, actually, Halliday is dead, so it’s a digital version of him in the OASIS who says the thing about decent meals.
But Ready Player One isn’t interested in decent meals, and we never see anyone preparing or enjoying one. Anyway, Halliday is referencing Groucho Marx, so the movie’s best line about “reality” is just one more blasted Easter egg.
Reality is also purportedly the only place where a boy and a girl can really get to know one another, fall in love and certainly kiss. Anyway, Wade is perhaps meant to look foolish for thinking he’s in love with a legendary gamer he knows only by her digital alter ego, Art3mis, a punk-rock action heroine with spiky pink hair and anime-ish oversized eyes.
Certainly Art3mis thinks Wade a fool, and pointedly tells him that he knows nothing about her; certainly she doesn’t actually look like her avatar. And Wade definitely makes a serious mistake by giving Art3mis his real name inside the OASIS. (Always remember, kids, how very foolish it is to give strangers personal information online.)
But eventually Wade meets the face behind Art3mis, which belongs to Samantha Cook (Ouija’s Olivia Cooke), and his digital crush merges pretty seamlessly into the real world. Fortunately for Wade, Samantha is a) actually female, b) actually attractive, and c) neither too old nor too young for him. This does not go without saying (in the OASIS nobody knows you’re a dog).
Samantha isn’t even a different skin tone from Wade, which might not have mattered, except insofar as not mattering would have mattered. She does have a feature she is embarrassed about, which Wade pointedly dismisses as unimportant to him. That Wade himself lacks Parzival’s sculpted cheeks and flippy white locks does not come up.
Eventually there is a real-world kiss, but the individuals in question have spent very little real-world time together. The bottom line is that Ready Player One wants to tell us that reality matters, but the movie really has no interest in its posited “reality” — which is, of course, just a grimmer and less stimulating fantasy.
The plot pits Wade, Samantha and a trio of allies — Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki) — collectively known as the “High Five” against the ruthless CEO of Innovative Online Industries, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).
At stake: total control of the OASIS. The arena: a series of competitive challenges embedded in the OASIS by Halliday before his death. Yes, rebel gamers must play video games to save the internet from a corporate villain. Remember, this is the movie’s “real world.”
Resolving the challenges involves getting inside Halliday’s head and understanding his defining regrets in life: love lost through fear; friendship lost through resentment. (Don’t be afraid to take the risk, to kiss the girl, to face your pain.)
These are potentially potent themes, but, despite another soulful performance by Rylance, Halliday never emerges as a vital character whose regrets in life amount to much more than scavenger-hunt clues, Maguffins, Rosebuds. The man is (let’s remember) dead, and, while his OASIS alter ego, Anorak, lives on, it’s not him.
It’s not impossible that the figure of Halliday could have had some real poignance. Not only is he played by Rylance, on some level he parallels Spielberg, who did as much as anyone to create the world of 1980s pop-culture nostalgia celebrated here. (Ready Player One doesn’t explicitly celebrate the Spielberg legacy as much as it might have — for one thing, Spielberg didn’t want to make it all about him, and in some cases the rights to certain properties weren’t available anyway — but in any case it’s impossible to imagine the Iron Giant without E.T. or Lara Croft without Raiders of the Lost Ark.)
Perhaps flashbacks of the real Halliday, scattered throughout the film, would have made the theme of middle-aged regret more vital. Perhaps if the drama ultimately turned on vital real-world relationships, the theme of embracing reality wouldn’t feel like a tacked-on public-service announcement.
Perhaps if saving the world involved more than battling a corporate suit for control of the OASIS — perhaps if it involved people’s real-world needs and the lousy state of the world — it might even be moving.
Hey! Did I mention Art3mis drives Kaneda’s bike from Akira and a knife-wielding Chucky shows up to wreak mayhem? Would you believe there are nods to Speed Racer and ThunderCats? How about Battletoads and Halo? I’m just scratching the surface.
Caveat Spectator: Much intense, mostly fantasy violence; brief sensuality; some profanity, cursing and crude language. Teens and up.