The ultimate fanboy film, Ready Player One hinges entirely on geeky nostalgia. It’s loaded top to bottom with with aural and visual references to video games, movies, film, comic books, television, toys, and role playing games, mostly from but not exclusively limited to the 1980s. You’ll see a Spartan from Halo disintegrate Freddy Krueger and King Kong thwart a road race featuring Speed Racer‘s Mach 5, the Batmobile, the Bigfoot monster truck, the DeLorean from Back to the Future, and the racing bike from Akira — and that’s just the first ten minutes.
In lesser hands a film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s best-selling YA novel would likely have been little more than a CGI-saturated barrage of pop culture references slathered on a bare-bones plot. Steven Spielberg’s take on it isn’t exactly a whole lot more than that, but he is definitely in his element here, and he occasionally finds a little heart and soul with which to flesh it out.
Several of the details and plot points in the novel are altered for a variety of reasons ranging from pacing to licensing issues, but the basics are the same: The story is set in 2045, and much of the world has fallen into disrepair to the extent that most people seek escape from their increasingly bleak lives in the OASIS, a virtual-reality universe so expansive and rife with possibility that it’s become a major economic powerhouse.
It’s creator, nerd-genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance) passed away a few years prior and left behind a quest for the inhabitants of OASIS. The first to solve the riddles and challenges he left behind will find the ultimate Easter egg: Halliday’s massive fortune and complete ownership of OASIS.
One such player is Wade “Parzival” Watts (Tye Sheridan), an orphan living in the “stacks” (think trailer parks with mobile homes stacked like shipping containers) of Columbus, Ohio, who uncovers the first key and fires up the competition in earnest. This draws plenty of attention, mainly from gamer/social activist/love interest Samantha “Art3mis” Cook (Olivia Cooke), who wants OASIS to remain free and open to everyone; as well as Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the CEO of a massive corporation seeking to monetize the hell out of it.
So yeah, it’s more or less Tron and the Chocolate Factory.
Spielberg and screenwriters Cline and Zak Penn do have some thoughtful things to say about living too much of one’s life online, falling for someone you’ve never met in person, and the pitfalls of a virtual world in general, but these are often shoved into the background by fan service, nerdy adventure, and fast-and-furious pacing. Even Spielberg can tread the waters of nostalgia overkill and non-stop action beats for only so long before the story is overwhelmed. Granted, it’s inevitable with this sort of material, but the characters do suffer for it, and are rendered to little more than generic Spielbergian constructs.
In all fairness, Spielberg and company are here to play as much as we are, and no one should expect too much pointed social commentary from a movie more focused on setting up a fight between the Iron Giant and Mechagodzilla. While it might not have anything urgent to say, Ready Player One succeeds at being what the iconic director does best, and what so many other filmmakers strive — and so fail — to replicate: It’s a clever, stylish, entertaining blockbuster designed to give one’s inner child the cinema equivalent of a sugar rush.