Ready Player One depicts a future world inhabited by people who would rather live out their days in a virtual reality world — and the sad truth is that it doesn’t feel too inauthentic of a possible real-life future. For as much as a film like this wishes to sing the virtues of our society’s current obsession with pop culture — fueled, in no small part, by the advent of the internet — it can’t help but highlight less than virtuous principles such as consumerism and social isolation. The film tries to argue that consumerism is bad and that we shouldn’t let media dictate our lives, but the greatest of ironies is that this is a film that glorifies pop culture in a way that doesn’t feel nostalgic. It’s a film which knows we like pop culture, but it’s not a film that understands why we like it.
To put that into perspective, one must recount the ways that Ready Player One tries to pass off its sickly brand of referential storytelling. The film is based on a book of the same title by Ernest Cline, who also penned the adaptation. Cline is not a strong writer, and the book is much worse than its screen adaptation, which already puts the film’s foundation on shaky ground. In essence, the story details a somewhat dystopian world — the rules of which are never properly explained or elaborated — where overpopulation is an issue and the citizens seek asylum within The Oasis, a virtual reality world where, as the film loves to repeat incessantly, you could be or do anything you want. Cue the beginning of an endless stream of pop culture references, whether it’s the dinosaur from Jurassic Park or a painful rendition of the dancing from Saturday Night Live.
Remarkably, in a virtual setting where anything is possible, nobody has the creativity to build their own inventions. Ready Player One hardly bothers with a plot — instead, it invites us to revel in the less than stellar ways it references our favorite films, games, and music. It’s all essentially a race to claim a hidden easter egg that will allow someone complete control of The Oasis. In other words, somebody else will dictate how the world gets to consume its media. The film tries to place its perspective with that of common people, fighting in vain to stop a greedy corporation from turning The Oasis into a consumerist’s pit. That’s good and all, but everything feels a bit undone when we realize the heroes aren’t particularly virtuous so much so as they are well-versed in knowledge of video games and movies.
Speaking of being acknowledged, one of the film’s strengths — and perhaps some detriments — comes from the fact it’s directed by Steven Spielberg. The original novel endlessly referenced works by the auteur, so it was almost a stroke of meta-textual genius to have Spielberg go behind the camera to explore why he believes the world has fallen in love time and time again with his filmic creations. Alas, it ends up feeling a bit more like a missed opportunity, as Spielberg directs the film with hardly any rumination and too much gimmickry. The director hasn’t entirely lost his touch. The film is arguably better because of his capable, accomplished directorial sense, and the sequences that take place outside of the exclusively-CG Oasis are the film’s best, because they feel like authentic Spielberg.
Interestingly enough, while Spielberg doesn’t fully commit to the ways the film could operate as an intelligent meta-textual work, he does inadvertently highlight recurrent problems in Hollywood’s current model of blockbuster filmmaking. In this effect, while Ready Player One operates as a poor examination of why we love pop culture, it does certainly highlight the modern perspective of how it’s turned from nostalgic to consumerist. One of the biggest elements that highlights the film’s insistence on following modern blockbuster filmmaking is in the way it lionizes its protagonists while rendering its antagonists broadly. The film never allows its hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), to have anything that might be misconstrued as a character flaw. He’s boringly heroic, deserving of the prize because he has a sad backstory and a remarkable love for pop culture. On the villainous side, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) represents the evils of business practices in such an over the top form, the character is saved not by the writing but by another fantastic performance by the underrated Mendelsohn. It’s as if Hollywood is afraid to make lines between what we construe as good and evil as anything but arbitrary, and this sanitation is starting to feel inhuman.
Another big issue is that the film feels far too long. Certainly, its piecemeal story doesn’t justify the length at all. Instead, the bulk of the film is made up of action sequences that frankly lack the zest and craftsmanship that characterize the best of Spielberg’s adventure filmmaking sensibility. The third act quickly devolves into a gigantic set piece that’s all sound and fury, becoming increasingly belabored the longer it goes on. More to the point, never at any point in the film do the stakes feel real. The action is bloodless and inconsequential, both in The Oasis and in the real world. Perhaps this stems from the film’s lack of definition for its dystopian paradise, but it’s not too far removed from Hollywood’s obsession with rendering violence into something removed from the very real horror that it is. Even in a film like Jurassic Park, a delightful creature feature perhaps bigger on heart than brains, each encounter with a dinosaur feels terrifying and the results of the rampage suitably harrowing. In Ready Player One, real world currency is at stake should your in-game avatar die, but the film doesn’t even make much of that. We only know that the heroes must win because business is evil — the film doesn’t bother to explain the full extent of what Sorrento’s company might do to the world because it believes it’s not as interesting as cramming at least fifty more pop culture references into the film before the credits.
All might have been forgiven had the films bevy of references felt genuinely inspired, like a real celebration of pop culture, in a way that highlighted the nostalgia while downplaying the niggling consumerist elements associated with them. But the opposite is true here — the references come fast and furiously, but they lack a real sense of joy and feel obligatory or self-important. Even worse, Ready Player One misinterprets the very media it tries to laud. An extended sequence has the heroes go through a recreation of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. From a filmmaking standpoint, Spielberg uses actual footage and recreated footage to seamlessly transport our heroes into the actual film itself… only to then throw in a bunch of CGI zombies wielding large axes. Even the poor Iron Giant, who was told with warm gusto that he was not a gun in Brad Bird’s masterful animated film, is utilized only as that — a large gun.
There are good things, to be sure, as you can expect with any Spielberg production. Even if the film relies too heavily on action, it’s not boring to sit through and is even consistently involving. If the days where Spielberg could effortlessly affect terror and awe from his audience are gone, he still retains some basic sense of how to make action exciting even if it’s not particularly inventively rendered. The acting is uniformly good and generally impressive from both its cast of young performers (chiefly Sheridan and Olivia Cooke) and older veterans (Mendelsohn and Mark Rylance). Alan Silvestri provides the score, riffing on some of his own classic compositions, but it generally works and feels a lot more inspired in its referential ways than the film at large does.
The film is escapist entertainment, in every sense of the word, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. But the film outplays itself when it tries to insist that all that pomp and circumstance from earlier was in service of a meaningful message. The story wants all of its barely moving parts to equate to something worthwhile, trying to extol the way we excessively consume media. But the film is always the opposite of what it thinks it is — it doesn’t advocate for warm nostalgia but instead highlights the consumerist nature of pop culture. It’s not a good argument for staying away from virtual reality because it never proves why actual reality is worth anything. And at every step of the way, it misunderstands even how its own audience works. What ends up functioning well almost always seems to be by accident — and truly, at the end of the day, the best elements of Ready Player One are those instilled by Spielberg’s steady directorial hand. It’s hardly the most offensive or even the most bland blockbuster that Hollywood has released in a while, and the ways it highlights the struggles of blockbuster filmmaking are fascinating. But unlike all the millions of media Ready Player One gleefully references, works that feel timeless and adored, the film itself will never be among that pantheon, no matter how badly it wants to be.