2.5 out of 5 stars.
It’s one thing for a film to reference or pay homage to pop culture figures; it’s quite another thing for a film to entirely revolve around said references. In some cases, this has worked splendidly: 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” is a modern classic in which iconic cartoon characters coexist with living humans, while Disney’s great 2012 animated feature “Wreck-It Ralph” takes place inside arcade games, with characters from video games from the last few decades making appearances. But while the thrill of nostalgia and familiarity gained from seeing your favorite characters appear outside of their normal sphere of existence is initially enjoyable, building an entire world around that interferes with the story a film is trying to tell, and that’s just one of a few problems plaguing Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel “Ready Player One.”
Set in Columbus, Ohio in the year 2045, the film depicts a dystopian future in which factors like climate change and overpopulation have led to many cities becoming slums known as “stacks,” and almost every citizen in the world, rather than trying to solve their real world problems, spends most of their time in the OASIS, a virtual reality video game. In the OASIS, players can be and do anything they want. Eighteen-year-old Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is one such player, who escapes the dullness of his life and the drama of his aunt and her boyfriend he lives with by going to the OASIS and playing as his avatar, Parzival. But it’s more than just a game. After the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), passed away several years ago, he left a video behind revealing to the world that he hid an Easter egg in the game, and whoever found it would inherit his vast fortune and complete control over the OASIS. The hunt draws regular people like Wade, but also big corporations like IOI (Innovative Online Industries), the main manufacturer of most equipment used in the OASIS and whose CEO, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) seeks complete control to the point that he forces mass amounts indebted users to look for the egg for him. When Wade finally uncovers the first clue, he attracts the attention of the entire world, including Nolan and a user called Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who opposes IOI and wants to prevent them from having any more power over the game.
There’s quite a lot of world-building within the OASIS, so much so that Wade spends the first several minutes of the film engaged in a lengthy narration explaining how the OASIS works. This is actually the first of a few moments toward the beginning of the film in which Wade actually has to go back and explain what is going on to the audience to set up what will happen next in the story, which immediately gets the film started on bad footing. Those detailed explanations may work well in the book, but are uninteresting in a visual medium, in which showing should be used over telling whenever possible. It is impressive to see the scope and the amount of detail put in to the OASIS, as well as the quality of the visual effects. For much of the film we follow the characters as their CG avatars, so it’s important for them to be appealing, and they are (though this still poses a problem for the film that I’ll circle back to in a bit).
But one of the most intriguing aspects of the movie is how it includes so many references to pop culture, primarily from films and games from the 1970s and 1980s, but with references extending all the way up to our current culture. There are so many references in the visuals and the dialogue that it would require multiple viewings to even come close to spotting them all, and they aren’t confined to any one genre or medium. Parizval drives the DeLorean from the “Back to the Future” films around King Kong in an important race toward the beginning of the movie (and one of the film’s most thrilling moments), while the climax involves the Iron Giant and a Gundam robot duking it out with Mechagodzilla. There’s even an entire sequence in which Wade and his friends (including Art3mis and his best friend Aech, who he enlists in helping him find the rest of the clues leading to the egg) enter the Overlook hotel from “The Shining,” one of Halliday’s favorite horror movies. But this isn’t just a replica of the set; they really enter the world of the movie, and interact with that film’s characters. It’s quite impressive, and rather amusing (although they venture so deep into the plot of that movie in this movie that a viewer who isn’t familiar with “The Shining” will likely not catch the significance of much of what happens in that sequence), but it also made me realize that I would rather be watching “The Shining” than “Ready Player One.”
That’s because “Ready Player One” is a movie that zips along on the backs of flashy action scenes and established film and video game franchises without creating a compelling narrative of its own. Once we’ve spent more than a few minutes in the OASIS it becomes rather dull. Anything goes in the OASIS, which makes it less interesting, and also rather messy when you throw in the fact that any familiar character from any franchise could show up at any time.
There are actually more intriguing things happening in the real world, although we don’t spend that much time there in the film compared with the OASIS—ironic, as one of the film’s messages is that we should unplug and spend more time in reality. There are a lot of themes you can read into the plot, and, unlike most dystopian films, it portrays a future for the world that doesn’t seem so far-fetched, as people spent more and more time behind screens while issues like climate change are very real threats. And there’s the fact that in real life, many of us establish relationships with people online who we’ve never met; in the film, Wade doesn’t know his best friend in the OASIS in the real world, and falls in love with a girl he’s never met. But these connections ultimately feel flimsy, in part because the film does such a poor job building up their real life counterparts. We get to know these characters first and foremost as avatars in a video game, and it’s hard to connect with them on an emotional level, no matter how realistic the graphics are. By the time we do meet everyone in human form, it’s too late in the film, and we aren’t given enough new information to make us care for them any more. Wade makes for an adequate but not particularly memorable hero, and the same can be said for Nolan (although Mendelsohn gives a great performance). The initial scenes with Art3mis, our female hero, are rather uncomfortable as well, as the film objectifies her and Wade determinedly fixates on her. Fortunately, this becomes less of a problem as the film progresses, but it’s a shame that the first sequences featuring the heroine are colored by that tone.
The scenes that resonate the most, and that most feel like that have that spark of Spielberg magic, are the ones surrounding the late Halliday, whether in flashback, or through Wade communicating with a VR version of the man. Rylance plays him as a shy nerd whose creation grew in scope beyond imagining but who never lost sight of what initially inspired him to create the game, and who still has so many regrets about the chances he didn’t take in his life. His scenes are tinged with loss and nostalgia but also with hope for the future; it’s through learning about Halliday that Wade learns about himself, and is able to grow and change as a person for the better. That’s probably the most important takeaway from this film, and the one that it leaves us with in the end. But it would be nice if the story relied less on noise and popular characters from other franchises, and more on moments like that.
Runtime: 140 minutes. Rated PG-13.