Ready Player One is pure Spielberg: fun and slick and perfectly constructed, filled with melodrama, spiced with a bit of self-aware hokeyness, and striving for relevance beyond mere entertainment. Not quite as mired in nostalgia as its source material—or, at least, more expansive in the references in which it is mired—Spielberg's film is probably a more appropriate setting for the subject matter than Ernest Cline's novel.
Cline's book often feels like little more than a catalog of references designed to flatter the prejudices and preferences of the reader, assuming the reader is someone—probably male, probably between the age of 25 and 45—who is intimately familiar with what could broadly be referred to as "geek culture." The novel and the movie revolve around efforts to solve a puzzle hidden in an immersive online game by that game's creator, a deceased billionaire genius named Halliday (Mark Rylance). Said genius was obsessed with said culture, giving rise to a generation of gamers who steep themselves in pop culture to glean Halliday's secrets.
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To wit, here are two of the most-highlighted lines from the Kindle version of the book:
Douglas Adams. Kurt Vonnegut. Neal Stephenson. Richard K. Morgan. Stephen King. Orson Scott Card. Terry Pratchett. Terry Brooks. Bester, Bradbury, Haldeman, Heinlein, Tolkien, Vance, Gibson, Gaiman, Sterling, Moorcock, Scalzi, Zelazny. I read every novel by every single one of Halliday’s favorite authors. …
I also absorbed the complete filmographies of each of his favorite directors. Cameron, Gilliam, Jackson, Fincher, Kubrick, Lucas, Spielberg, Del Toro, Tarantino. And, of course, Kevin Smith.
This sort of thing is blunt and un-artful when it takes the form of the written word, little more than signaling that assures the reader he has not wasted his life consuming crap. Blessed are the crap-lovers, Cline seemed to be saying, for they shall inherit the (virtual) Earth.
You can do the same sort of hyper-referential stuff much more slickly on the big screen. It becomes part of the setting, part of the design: you can note costumes and characters and movies and books and bands you recognize without having it all spelled out for you, all spoonfed to you. On the screen, the images and the references simply wash over you; there are too many at once to decipher them all, and, as a result, they simply drift into the background instead of being thrust into the foreground where you are forced to acknowledge and salute them.
This is apparent nowhere more than in the film's opening, exhilarating action sequence, when Parzival (Tye Sheridan) takes us on a quick tour of the Oasis—a virtual reality universe filled with planets on which people can do all sorts of neat stuff—before engaging in a street race with thousands of other Oasis-ites in an effort to unlock the first clue in Halliday's puzzle. The racers sit inside vehicles we know and love—Parzival's in a DeLorean; his friend, Aech (pronounced "H"; played by Lena Waithe), sits atop monster truck Bigfoot; and legendary gamer Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) rides the motorcycle from Akira—while zooming through streets dominated by marquees referencing Last Action Hero while trying to avoid the T-Rex from Jurassic Park and the gigantic ape from King Kong.
It's all a bit overwhelming but it also all works, more or less. One rarely feels as though the characters have trapped themselves in a velvet prison of nostalgia while watching the movie, even as they enter the Overlook Hotel and cosplay The Shining or attempt to determine the fate of the digital universe via mastery of Atari games.
And all this provides a nice gloss to what is, at heart, a rather straightforward action-adventure movie, one in which goals are discovered and achieved, underdogs come up against incredible odds, and true love wins the day. It's a bit overlong, at two hours and 20 minutes. It has a few too many endings. Rylance is the standout actor, even if his Halliday is, by and large, a bundle of tics rather than a real person. T.J. Miller almost steals the show as virtual assassin I-R0K. I'm not sure Sheridan has the gravitas to deliver a rousing monologue that rallies the masses to overthrow the oppression foisted upon them by their corporate overlords, embodied in this film by head of I0I Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).
But then, it doesn't help that the stakes seem preposterously low, given Sorrento's evil plot—which he is willing to commit murder to fulfill—revolves around gaining control of the Oasis so he can infest it with pop-up ads. In a world where the population density scolds have won, gifting us endless slums of trailers stacked on top of each other outside of Columbus, Ohio, I'm not really sure striving for a world free of come-ons for Viagra is really the thing our heroes should be most worried about.
And I think Spielberg and writers Cline and Zak Penn get that, though the manner in which they solve the immersion problem at film's end feels a bit heavy-handed, simplistic, and self-centered. Arriving as it does during our current freak out over social media's vast and growing influence, Ready Player One‘s faux-timeliness both acknowledges the issue and refuses to do anything with it, really.
I'd call it a missed opportunity, but then I'd probably be the one missing the point. Ready Player One does what it sets out to do: it entertains, it flatters, it moves. Hard to ask for much more than that from a big budget blockbuster.