In many ways, Ready Player One is the culmination of the modern pop culture landscape and its soil-rich fields of nostalgia. As media creators continue to mine our past and collective, generational childhoods to entertain adults in the present (and maybe indoctrinate their children), everything old is new again. So perhaps that is why it took one of the most revered maestros behind those cultural touchstones to not just make the Ready Player One movie, but to make it so well. For Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Ernest Cline novel is a supremely entertaining crowd-pleaser, and a film that brings something to the table everyone should be wistful for: that classic Spielberg touch.
Arguably the most popular film director alive, Spielberg is one of the many 1980s blockbuster auteurs that Cline giddily namechecks in his sci-fi novel about pop culture junkies who worship at the altar of the director’s 20th century output while barely acknowledging his work in the 21st. This is probably because Spielberg has largely eschewed the popcorn populism he helped define. He might still direct an Indiana Jones movie or two, but his heart has seemed to be more in wrestling with America’s past to confront our future. Hence why Ready Player One feels like something of a challenge set by the director for himself: engineer a thrill ride for audiences obsessed with chasing that elusive blend of sentiment and awe that used to be his bread and butter. And in the process, he has made his most enjoyable slice of escapism since the one-two punch of Minority Report and Catch Me if You Can.
Set in a dystopic 2045 where climate change, overpopulation, and a myriad of woes has left a planet to rot, Ready Player One cheerfully sidesteps all of its potential grimness by focusing on its own in-universe escape: a massive virtual reality system called the OASIS. Through the opioid of technology, the entire world populace abandons its problems as folks become whoever they want in a massive interactive game with its own currency. However, the people of 2045 are a lot like audiences of 2018, in that they just want to relive Gen-X and Millennial glory days.
That includes Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), the teenage lead and narrator of our story. In reality Wade lives on the highest level of a leaning tower of trailer parks piled atop one another—in a ghettoized neighborhood called “the Stacks”—but in the OASIS he goes by the username “Parzival,” a play on Percival, the King Arthur knight who found the Holy Grail (and focal point of 1981 cult classic Excalibur). Like everyone else his age, he is a “Gunter,” an easter egg hunter who is in search for the easter egg hidden somewhere within the OASIS by its creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance).
As it turns out, Halliday was a bit of an eccentric, and is wryly underplayed to perfection by Rylance as some bizarre amalgamation of Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Willy Wonka. Before Halliday’s death, he hid an easter egg and the three keys needed to find it at different points inside his OASIS. And whoever is the first to get them all will inherit his company, control of the OASIS, and $500 billion in equity. Needless to say this has spurred a little competition, especially between kids like Wade and the avatar he’s smitten with, Olivia Cooke’s Artemis. Every teenager has immersed themselves in the 1980s staples that Halliday unhealthily clung to… as has his corporate rival Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who’s hired a literal army of faceless avatar drones in the hopes of taking over Halliday’s company, and privatizing and data-mining the OASIS faster than you can say Ajit Pai. So the race is already tense, even before Parzival becomes the first player to find one of the hidden keys.
It’s fair to say that Ready Player One is exposition and plot heavy, especially in its first act where the screenplay earnestly labors (and struggles) to cram in as much world-building as possible. Yet even if that is where Cline’s interests lie, at least beyond the buckets of nostalgia, Spielberg is much happier to revel in the experience of being in this world than he is in making you understand each one-and-zero shout-out to nerd culture.
To be sure, the hook of Ready Player One is its attempt to include every pop culture reference imaginable in a brisk 370 pages, and the movie duplicates a good deal of it in just under two and a half hours. Old school video games, movies, and television shows all get name-checked or snuck into the background by digital wizards at ILM—albeit they’re largely more mainstream than the esoteric geekiness of the novel. However, these callbacks are more about an affectation than they are the point of the film, as the picture is clearly intended to be a theme park spectacle. As a result, some of the supporting characters and many of the intricacies of the book’s sprawling, and often unfocused, vision of the future fall by the wayside. Nevertheless, everything within the OASIS sparkles.
This will probably frustrate some fans of Cline’s bestseller, even if Cline himself is one of the screenwriters on the film. But like Spielberg’s adaptations of Jurassic Park and Jaws, the director uses a popular framework to make a precisely tuned cinematic delight. And as the movie returns to that familiar sensibility, its attention to detail and patient narrative construction is a reminder that manipulating the audience is as much a talent as knowing how to compose a frame—as well as an art lost in most big budget diversions from this decade. In contrast with typical modern blockbusters, there is a visual dexterity that can be at times dazzling, such as when Parzival and Artemis share a zero-gravity dance at a VR club, and at other moments unexpectedly rousing, like Ready Player One’s entire third act, which builds to a crescendo of audience-baiting applause.
Through the conceit of this being a video game world, Spielberg is allowed to embrace computer-generated imagery that does not need to look photorealistic, which in turn allows his set-pieces to be something other than obligatory; they’re grounded in an elegant design, even when they don’t have gravity, which becomes invigorating instead of exhausting. The director also uses the appeal of the OASIS to reference some of his personal cinematic forget-me-nots that are outside of Cline’s bowling alley arcade aesthetic, including nods to Orson Welles, Merian C. Cooper, and Stanley Kubrick.
When coupled with a talented cast that includes winsome charisma from Sheridan and Cooke—whose verbal banter puts just enough heart and sincerity at the core of Ready Player One to make its climax mean something—the result is what will probably be one of the most enjoyable moviegoing experiences of 2018. There is likely a more post-modernist take on this material out there in the multiverse, and certainly one that would be far more critical of a world stuck in the past, but most audiences will count themselves lucky to be living in the one where all of Ready Player One’s hermetically sealed nostalgia is inexplicably fresh and, most of all, fun.
This review was first published on March 12, 2018.