‘Ready Player One’ Review: A Pop Culture Remix for the VR Generation

Leigh Singer
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Review Essentials
  • The biggest, boldest pop culture mash-up ever
  • Immersive Spielberg action with a VR slant
  • An all-time great scene set in classic movie
  • Too dependent on nostalgia over originality
  • An underdeveloped real world dystopia
  • Engaging but underwritten characters

What Is Ready Player One?

Perhaps the biggest director in pop culture history, Steven Spielberg (Jaws, the Indiana Jones series, Jurassic Park, etc.) adapts Ernest Cline’s 2011 smash hit novel, itself perhaps the biggest pop culture mash-up of recent times.

Set in a dystopian 2045, the impoverished masses try to escape Earth’s mounting problems by immersing themselves in the Oasis, a virtual world where your imagination is the only limit to creating a new environment and identity for yourself. As our hero, orphaned teenage Ohio gamer Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) narrates early on – and we see in vertiginous, VR-perspective, “You can ski down the Pyramids. Or climb Mount Everest. With Batman.”

The creator of the Oasis, tech genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance), has died but claims to have left an Easter Egg hidden within the game. Like a latter-day Willy Wonka, he pledges that whoever finds it will inherit his entire fortune and company. Wade makes a breakthrough, finding the first of three secret keys, but ruthless businessman Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) of multinational Innovative Online Industries wants the Oasis for himself and sets out to stop Wade and his band of rebel gamers, the High Five.

“A movie, not a film.”

Steven Spielberg sets up expectations for something that's purely fun.

So said Stephen Spielberg himself at Ready Player One’s SXSW Festival world premiere. For anyone wondering what exactly the difference is, it seemed like Spielberg was trying to adjust expectations. For such a versatile filmmaker, particularly one who’s just come off his serious Oscar-nominated drama The Post, this is Spielberg in pure crowd-pleasing, blockbuster mode.

Spielberg declared himself a longtime avid gamer, though as much as video games are an essential part of this film’s universe, it’s also made squarely for anyone steeped in the wider pop culture of the 1970s and ‘80s. Even more so than recent homage-filled screen hits like Stephen King’s It, J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, or, especially, Stranger Things, this is a fully-fledged nostalgia fest — albeit one delivered by a man actually responsible for many of those experiences first time out.

The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth

Ready Player One
Get ready to see lots of character cameos like the Iron Giant.

If your idea of the ultimate action scene is a Back to the Future DeLorean on a Super Mario Kart-style racetrack with a rampaging T-Rex and King Kong trying to stop you, then Ready Player One is the movie for you. From its jukebox soundtrack of classic pop (the first sound heard is the opening riff to Van Halen’s “Jump” – as direct an invitation to audiences’ participation as imaginable), through to the mix-and-match appropriation of icons from games, movies, and more, this is a dazzling pop-culture cocktail from a master blender, using the first-person-shooter view for maximum immersion. Geek chic 2.0.

The film sees no contradiction in declaring that a character’s modern authenticity is shown by true devotion to the past. In one key, very funny scene, Sorrento is shown to be a thoroughly bad apple not because of soulless corporate greed, but because he needs to be covertly coached by earpiece to tell the real John Hughes teen movie trivia from the fake. The screen is a cavalcade of cinematic cameos, some featured heavily – the Iron Giant gets a major co-starring role, as do anime legends Mechagodzilla and Gundam. Others, like Beetlejuice or Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddie Krueger, have to make do with blink-and-miss-’em guest spots that repeat viewings will clearly reward.

Similarly, we spend probably more screen time watching the main cast as their Manga-eyed Oasis avatars than as their real selves. Wade’s Parzival and his VR buddies Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe) and duo Daito (Win Morisaki) and Shoto (Philip Zhao) make for an engaging, pleasingly multi-ethnic (and no doubt multi-cultural box-office appealing) crew; but, Sheridan and Cooke apart, the actors remain largely ciphers. Who you pretend to be seems to be more important than who you really are, and it’s hard to tell if that’s a critique of our image-obsessed, social media-driven society, or an accepting shrug.

Nostalgia Overload?

ready player one references
Does the movie rest on its referential laurels.

Most viewers will spot, say, a Terminator 2 nod. Some of the allusions here, though, aren’t just “deep cuts” (Buckaroo Banzai, or a magic spell taken verbatim from 1981 Arthurian epic Excalibur), but leave you wondering what, if any, relevance they’ll have for the younger target audience: what will Parzival and Art3mis’s levitating two-step on the multi-coloured dancefloor from ‘70s disco smash Saturday Night Fever, mean to a young gamer? Or Wade and Samantha (Art3mis’s alter-ego)? More importantly, what do such scenes actually bring to the film’s world, other than for certain spectators to give themselves a pat on the back for catching the reference? In Cline and Spielberg’s retro hall of mirrors, all too often the film is happy to coast on the Ghosts of Pop Culture Past without giving them much of a reason to haunt these kids’ present (virtual) reality.

The film surely knows this too: by far the best sequence comes when the High Five’s investigation takes them inside an iconic horror movie that Halliday saw on a key date – and one of the characters, Aech, gets in too deep because s/he hasn’t seen the movie. It’s a brilliantly inventive scene, a tribute by Spielberg to one of his own favorite filmmakers — and one-time collaborator — that it doesn’t seem fair to fully spoil here. But let’s just say all (video game) play and no (movie) work makes Aech a dull-witted boy/girl…

Virtual > Reality

Parzival outside the Oasis
Wade Williams (Tye Sheridan) in the dreary real world.

Strangely, for a story that ultimately prioritizes real-life connections over virtual communities, the film is hugely biased in favor of the latter. The Stacks in Columbus, Ohio is a high-rise trailer park/junkyard version of the familiar Blade Runner-inspired screen dystopia. Outside of that, however, Ready Player One’s real world is frustratingly ill-defined, unlike its Day-Glo VR arena. Spielberg is too good a filmmaker to drop the ball entirely, cleverly shooting Wade’s world with a more classical style, compared to the frenetic swooping camera inside the Oasis. Yet the overall imbalance does make the film feel more generic theme park than its own fully realized magic kingdom.

In addition, Spielberg and screenwriter Zak Penn seem to have deliberately shunned some of the darker, more complex elements in Cline’s book. There’s no extended alienation for Wade here or death of a major young character. And, in general, the stakes and sense of genuine danger often present in Spielberg blockbusters feel absent. Game over means just that. Then you simply ready another player…

Is Ready Player One Good?

Wade Williams (Tye Sheridan) visits the Oasis.

If you have any love for games, movies, and music of the 1980s, then Ready Player One’s nostalgia fest, combined with Spielberg’s customary skill and its cutting-edge visuals, will provide an emotional sugar rush of unparalleled eye candy.

But, too often the film seems content to recycle and remix rather than develop something truly new. Spielberg is the pre-eminent pop culture master because he gave us so many original stories that, for all their fantasy and sci-fi elements, felt grounded in reality. They mattered because you genuinely felt them. Ready Player One is a kid’s film, more childish than childlike, in a way that, for example, E.T. is not.

Make no mistake, this is gourmet popcorn, a hi-tech The Goonies. But after you exit the movie’s visual feast, you might still hunger for something that engaged your brain as much as your eyes, the way the very best Spielberg movies do.

Leigh Singer
UK-based film journalist, programmer and video essayist. VR avatar probably a combination of Roger Rabbit and Llewyn Davis. But hey, enough of my yakkin'; whaddaya say? Let's boogie!