Spielberg's Ready Player One goes back to the future with '80s nostalgia
How you feel about Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, Ready Player One, will likely depend on when you grew up. With a heavy focus on pop culture of a certain era and the recent trend toward all-encompassing video games, the film will be enjoyed greatly by particular generations, but perhaps leave others befuddled and cold.
Set in a semi-dystopian 2045, the world has apparently turned so dire that nearly everybody spends their days in the virtual reality world called the OASIS. Wade (Tye Sheridan) — known as Parzival in the OASIS — has discovered that anything is possible in that world, as long you have the skills to continue without “zeroing out,” aka losing all your digital currency.
The recently deceased creator of the OASIS, Halliday (Mark Rylance), has hidden a series of Easter eggs that will give the person who discovers all of them power over the virtual world. Parzival is one of many gamers in search of the hidden prizes, along with Aech/Helen (Lena Waithe) and Art3mis/Samantha (Olivia Cooke). Trying to get there before them is corporate overlord Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who utilizes his own virtual army in the pursuit.
Based on the book by Ernest Cline (who also serves as co-writer of the film), the movie is unabashed in its love of almost anything that entered pop culture between 1978 and 1991. In the context on screen, that admiration makes sense as Halliday grew up in that time period and thus filled the OASIS with things from his childhood. Parzival, who reveres Halliday, has taken a shine to many of the same things despite having grown up 50 years later.
The level of detail the film uses to indicate this devotion is staggering. There are so many references that it would be impossible to catch them all without the benefit of a pause button. You could call it nostalgia overkill, except that, for the most part, the film doesn’t get bogged down in the references. Yes, they are ever-present and there are certain sequences where they play an integral part of the plot, but they also usually feel organic to the story at hand.
That’s because the film also immerses itself in the gamer culture that has popped up in the last 10 years or so, one that is nothing but self-referential. If you can do anything in the OASIS, it makes perfect sense that players would want to use or build certain pop culture items that they loved or that they think would impress other players.
Still, the onslaught can get a bit wearing, as can the sheer amount of exposition that Wade and others must impart to make the story intelligible. Surprisingly, what doesn’t wear out its welcome is the computer-generated imagery, which easily comprises 70 percent of the film. Spielberg and his crew seamlessly transition in and out of the virtual world, making the characters’ avatars and everything else in the OASIS feel as natural as anything in the real world.
The performances are somewhat hit-and-miss. Sheridan and Cooke are the only actors who get to act close to the same both in and out of the OASIS, so they come off the best. Rylance plays the socially awkward Halliday well, but a little of him goes a long way. Mendelsohn is naturally intimidating, so why he or someone else chose to saddle him with unsightly and speech-impeding fake teeth is beyond me.
Unlike many of his recent films, Spielberg clearly set out to make Ready Player One as purely an entertaining experience. As long as you don’t try to overanalyze the innumerable references and just go with the flow, it’s a blast to watch.