Based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel of the same name, Ready Player One has been getting no shortage of buzz — largely in part of director Steven Spielberg sitting at the helm, a tagline that bills it as a “pop culture holy grail” and a list of rights acquisitions to bolster the references and shoutouts about three miles long.
On paper, it sounds like the recipe for a blockbuster fireworks show the likes of which we’ve never seen — but in practice, the pieces came together for an unfortunate disappointment.
Ready Player One is a movie that, from start to finish, assumes the viewer already knows everything about it. Its world building amounts to a baffling parable about two creators who invented a hugely famous, global VR version of Second Life called “The Oasis,” in which anything is possible. The creators were partners until they mysteriously split (something about a woman they were fighting over?), and then one of them (Mark Rylance as James Halliday, the one who remained with the company after ousting his partner) died, leaving behind a hidden scavenger hunt in The Oasis, the winner of which will take control of the game and the company.
That’s where our main character, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), known as Parzival in The Oasis, comes in. From the word “go,” Wade’s one and only distinguishing characteristic is the fact that he’s a fanboy — but in a world where being a fanboy has literally become a high paying corporate job, it’s hard to see why that makes him at all special. Halliday’s hunt has been going on for five years and no one has made any progress, but a competing company — IOI — has dedicated the full breadth of their resources to continuing the hunt. They use disposable soldiers nicknamed “Sixers” — nerds who, apparently, wanted to cash in their knowledge and passion for a big paycheck — to endlessly beat their heads against Halliday’s puzzles and challenges.
The end result is a a confusing and muddled message about the “purity” of fandom. Wade is different from the Sixers because he won’t literally sell out, but he exists in a world where worth is proven by figuratively doing exactly that. Wade is endlessly juxtaposed against cuts to IOI’s team of suit-wearing corporate fanboys and girls, but they only ever do the exact same thing: rattle off trivia in “um, actually” cadences, solve puzzles by diving deep into their own obsessions, and prove their worth by winning nitpicking arguments.
If Ready Player One has anything to say at all, it’s that the corporatization of pop culture is cutting out its heart. It’s a noble enough flag to plant in the ground, but one that makes little to no sense considering that the movie itself exists as a multimillion dollar corporate blockbuster where — no joke — the audience uproariously cheered for the Warner Bros. and Amblin logos that play at the head of the film.
Wade’s friends, inexplicably named “The High Five” about midway through the final act of the movie, are a team of paper-thin sidekicks who only get passing glances until they’re abruptly all thrust together in the real world. How did they all find each other, after the movie spends a whole sequence impressing upon the dangers of allowing people in the Oasis to know your real identity? Great question. How did they meet and why are they working together? Another great question.
This sort of hand-waving continues throughout the film. Corporate bad guy Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) has a giant orge-like stooge, apparently named i-R0k (according to online sources — his name wasn’t totally clear in the movie itself) who spouts witty one-liners and is, apparently, willing to get his hands dirty. Why is i-R0k working with Sorrento? Who knows. Why does Sorrento need him when he’s got a literal army of Sixers at his beck and call? We can’t be sure.
There are real-world slave labor camps called Loyalty Centers which help provide the motivation for Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), but why does a mega corporation with the reach and resource of IOI need slave labor in digital world where seemingly anything can be created at will? Who knows. “Welcome to the resistance,” Art3mis tells Wade when they meet in the real world — but the resistance to what exactly? IOI? Corporate greed?
Of course, the elephant in the room when dealing with Ready Player One is its naked derivativeness — it’s a story that takes an awful lot of pride in reusing and repurposing parts of other, more famous stories — but honestly, the referential humor in and of itself is hardly a sin here. You know from beat one exactly what you’re in for, even if you’re not typically a fan of endless wink-nudge “did you catch that reference?” moments. The problems start when you realize that those wink-nudge moments feel less like fun pop culture shout-outs and more like off-brand, off-model passing glances to avoid too many copyright issues.
For example: there’s an extended sequence that takes place in a recreation of Kubrick’s The Shining where characters are forced to live through some pretty iconic moments — the blood flood from the elevator, the corpse in room 237, the snowy hedge maze — but the whole time, even through the recreation of the ax scene, Jack Nicholson’s likeness is conspicuously absent. Instead, the big bad of this version of The Shining is…well, a zombie. The effect is a weird, cheap uncanniness that is banking on audiences to catch enough of the shorthand being used that they don’t notice that they’re being handed a bootleg.
Similarly, in a hugely promoted cameo, the Iron Giant swings into action in the middle of a warzone, but in this context, the hugely beloved, famously pacifist character is shooting eye beams and firing off laser cannons to wipe out whole swaths of enemy combatants. It’s strangely off-putting, even if it does give you that rush of nostalgia-laced endorphins it’s angling for.
If you’re a die-hard fan of the novel and absolutely willing to do the legwork the movie expects you to do to fill in the gaps and make the connections it doesn’t want to bother making, you might find yourself having fun here. If not? You’ll probably find this one more exhausting that it’s worth.
Ready Player One is in theaters on Thursday, March 29.
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