The biggest question I had going into Ready Player One was, absent any and all pop culture references, could the film stand on its own? After all, the book would spend pages poring over details about the films and video games of the ’80s — and many pivotal plot points would require the characters to have encyclopedic knowledge of that era. Would the movie put us through the same tedium?
Mercifully, no. Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One is colorful, frenetic and fun. It’s bursting with nods to decades of movies and games, but Spielberg mostly uses them to create the atmosphere of a world obsessed with pop culture. (What could be more realistic than that?) The film takes the broad strokes of the book and adapts them to make nostalgia more of an ambience than a narrative crutch. The result is something that feels like the biggest tribute to escapism; ironically, it’s when we leave the pop culture confinements of the virtual world, however sparingly, that the movie feels less fulfilling.
Ready Player One is unapologetically a commercial action movie designed to put spectacle first. To get there as fast as possible, it front-loads a lot of world-building by way of narration. Within the first five minutes, you know everything you need to know about this world: It’s the year 2045 and everyone — quite literally everyone — escapes the derelict future by plugging into a parallel virtual world called the OASIS. As we watch our hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) — better known by his online handle, Parzival — climb his way down from his home atop a vertical trailer park (“the stacks”) to his hidden VR den, we see a montage of neighbors logged in and miming various tasks that seem to coordinate with whatever their in-world characters are doing. It’s comical, both in execution and in the premise that so many people would be using motion controls. But if you swap VR for mobile phones, it doesn’t feel that far off — and, to be sure, people dancing in VR headsets is way more visually interesting than someone tapping on their iPhone.
The driving force of Ready Player One is to find the Easter egg. On his deathbed, the creator of OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), unveiled a series of challenges and mysteries that exist in the world. Solve three puzzles, collect three keys and unlock the coveted Easter egg, and you’ll win control of the entire OASIS. Parzival — it feels more appropriate to use his avatar’s name, given the majority of screen time is spent in the OASIS — is a “gunter,” short for “egg hunter” (i.e., someone who hunts for the Easter egg). Joining Parzival at the start is his best friend Aech (Lena Waithe), and soon afterward, a chance encounter with famed gunter Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) helps all three of them become the first people ever to solve one of the puzzles.
Watts’ obsessions are less about pop culture writ large and more about the pop culture that Halliday consumed. All his expertise is tied to Halliday in some way, and indeed, where the movie differs most from its source material is in the Big Three Puzzles, which have largely been rewritten. Without giving anything away, it’s knowledge of Halliday as a human that plays a more substantial role here than the pop culture references themselves. It isn’t about knowing the factoids of his favorite movie so much as it is knowing his biggest dreams and regrets at the time he saw it. (Halliday himself gets ample screen time throughout the film, by way of archival footage that Watts watches from part of an all-encompassing James Halliday library within the OASIS.) When the reference does matter, it’s explained in such a way that anyone without prior knowledge will get it, not entirely unlike how Spielberg would treat ancient texts in an Indiana Jones film. (Remember the end of Last Crusade when Indy is trying to get through the temple using his biblical knowledge? It’s kind of like that, but with Atari 2600 games.)
Parzival is racing against Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), which makes VR equipment. IOI is a laughably over-the-top villainous corporation, using armies of players — sometimes against their will — to try and brute-force the puzzle solutions, with the goal of owning and better monetizing OASIS with advertising (among other means). It’s through IOI that the film almost mocks those who harp too much on the nostalgia factor: Mendelsohn tries to relate to Watts through movie references, using a team of “historians” who strive to learn everything about Halliday’s favorite games and films. (As an aside, why anyone would make hardware that lets you accurately feel a virtual kick to the groin is beyond me. Again, this is a very villainous corporation.)
Outside of Watts/Parzival, Halliday and maybe Sorrento, the supporting cast feels like just that — support. Art3mis and Aech in particular feel underwritten and underutilized, especially considering how good their few moments to shine are. And it’s in the real world where things just feel particularly off. For a movie that makes a point to talk about how digital interaction isn’t necessarily meaningful, the real-world chemistry between Parzival and Art3mis feels rushed to the point of unwarranted wish fulfillment. Conversely, their digital connection feels more fleshed out.
But the movie isn’t about the real world. It’s about protecting escapism — which is to say the OASIS — and every scene in the virtual world is a joy to watch. The attention to detail makes even minor moments, like watching characters go through their inventory, oddly engrossing. It’s unsurprising that many players choose to use Street Fighter or Halo characters as their in-world avatars, or that the in-game items reference ’70s and ’80s mainstays like Child’s Play and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. What is surprising is how well it all fits, and how interesting the nonreferential aspects of the universe are.
If there’s a deeper meaning to the movie that Spielberg wants to convey, it’s that we undervalue human interaction and perhaps spend too much time escaping through technology. That doesn’t quite work out when the film makes the virtual look so wondrous and the real so bleak. But Ready Player One, more than anything, is designed for spectacle. And in that, it succeeds.