Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Hannah John-Kamen
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
As a purveyor of pop culture escapism, Steven Spielberg practically created his own category. The 1970's/1980's were dominated by the filmmaker seizing control of the zeitgeist; remaining three or four steps ahead as the film industry shifted. In the process, he predicted the future of blockbuster filmmaking and molded an entire generation of (mostly) young boys into what has now been termed fanboy geek culture. Of course, Spielberg was simply riffing on his childhood obsessions--Saturday morning serials, 50's sci-fi, David Lean-influenced epics-- and then channeling them into his work. For better or worse, what Spielberg and fellow chum George Lucas wrought upon the masses became more popular than the things they were aping, leading to a whole new crop of younger filmmakers bent on copying the Spielberg/Lucas blockbuster formula. Spielberg's latest effort, Ready Player One, sees him returning to the well of nostalgia that he made his name on; unfurling like a blast of reference-laden cinematic junk food that reveals the future as a place were I.P. has become a cross-promotional nightmare.
Sure, this all may be big studio nonsense, but in Spielberg's hands, the cross-promotional nightmare is also fun; involving a gamer-led parallel universe known as "The Oasis" which allows average dystopian citizens to plug in, become their avatar of choice, and geek out to pop culture references. Based on Ernest Cline's 2011 novel, Ready Player One is essentially Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory gone VR,; where an earnest, bland white kid owns the universe by following digital bread crumbs. In this case, the virtual factory was created by Wonka-esque genius programmer James Halliday (Mark Rylance, channeling Garth from Wayne's World), who placed Easter eggs inside the Oasis before he died that would allow full possession of the I.P. Enter Wade Watts (Ty Sheridan), a skilled gamer living in Columbus, Ohio who, along with fellow virtual competitors/friends Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki), seek to crack the code and take ownership of the Oasis.
The idea of escaping into a virtual world where gender normality is obscured, personality shifts, and culture is appropriated is already upon us, but instead of revealing itself as a nesting place for trolls and Gamergate controversy, Spielberg cannily exploits our obsession with nostalgia by making it a safe space. Even if Ready Player One is a clunky excuse for trotting out a wealth of pop culture tie-ins and predictable character beats, there's a meta-textual element here in which fandom is a poisonous leach, which perhaps explains why Spielberg has all but removed his own movies from the 'spot the reference' mayhem. There's even a smarmy 80's style corporate goon ready to exploit the Oasis for pure profit named Nolan Sorrento; played, of course, by defacto villain Ben Mendelsohn.
Sheridan is fine as the hero, and he has some nice scenes opposite Olivia Cooke as Art3mis; who appears in the Oasis as a punk rock Akira-esque badass, but the live action human characters are mostly on hand to act as conduits for their digital avatars. Therefore, the plot, such as is, doesn't matter. Likewise, the search for the hidden Easter eggs tucked inside Halliday's games are mainly an excuse for Spielberg to stage some visually spectacular set-pieces. A dizzying race featuring a T. Rex (the only overt Spielberg reference), King Kong, Mad Max dune buggies, the time-traveling DeLorean (complete with composer Alan Silvestri's doing a clever wink at his famous Back to the Future score), is a sugar-rush highlight; a chaotic swirl of movement that nonetheless feels cohesive. However, the film's best and most bracing sequence takes place inside a beloved 80's horror film; which Spielberg uses to honor the past as well as put his characters through the ringer for holding too tightly to their fandom.
Throughout Ready Player One, Spielberg merges state of the art motion-captured technology (like he did with the criminally underrated The Adventures of Tin Tin and The BFG) with old fashioned thrills that almost feel quaint during our current climate. Needle drop cues for Van Halen's “Jump” and Prince's “I Wanna Be Your Lover” as Wade runs around in his Buckaroo Banzai suit are so goofy that the only appropriate response is to grin through a grimace. Additionally, Spielberg's gee-whizz enthusiasm for the visual aspects means that the film's queasy relationship to "real fans" and "haters"--based on having an encyclopedic knowledge of Halliday's obsession with pop culture artifacts--is never really dealt with.
Despite Ready Player One's insistence that the real world matters more than the imaginary one, Spielberg's own back catalog of pop escapism suggests that the opposite is true. Still, there's something subversive about a movie which implies the death of creativity by clinging to childhood nostalgia--that we are forever doomed to be stuck in a loop of self-referential touchstones--even if that loop involves dorky humor, forced sentiment, and the Iron Giant wrecking shop.