In the corner of my 10-year-old bedroom was an autographed picture of Freddy Krueger, a die-cast metal Voltron, and an overused Nintendo that could only be started when the right combination of maneuvers was conducted. That connection to the past continues to engage my participation in old-school video arcades, museums that recreate the mom-and-pop video stores of my childhood, and retro toy companies that reconstruct the characters I had epic battles with in the sandbox. Nostalgia is a powerful tool.
Steven Spielberg is solely responsible for many childhood memories for numerous film fans. It’s undeniable how much influence the director had on novelist Ernest Cline, who fashioned the book Ready Player One as an ode to popular culture and ultimately an ode to nostalgia.
The film adaptation of Ready Player One is composed to the edges with pop culture everything, literally everything you might possibly imagine from the video games and movies you remember from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Flying DeLoreans, King Kong, Freddy Krueger, the Iron Giant, and many more populate the cinematic frame. Leave it to Steven Spielberg to add his distinguishable design to make this visual chaos have a narrative purpose, one that underneath all the flash and bang offers social commentary concerning technology’s ever-expanding grasp on our lives.
Game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and his partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) changed the world with a revolutionary program called The Oasis, a virtual reality world where imagination has no limits. In The Oasis, the player can craft their character however they want and play a variety of games to attain coins that give them in-game perks. When Halliday dies, he unleashes a competition in The Oasis that will give ownership of the trillion dollar business to whoever can find the hidden golden “Easter egg.”
The style and structure of Ready Player One is pure Spielberg, which makes sense considering novelist Ernest Cline references the director’s catalog throughout the novel. Mr. Spielberg has been redefining the action scene since the car chase in Duel. Every single action sequence in Ready Player One is amazing, breathtaking, and inspiring. From a racing scene that feels like Super Mario Kart, to an ode to a Stanley Kubrick classic, to a battle scene reminiscent of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, there is complete chaos depicted in the best way possible because of the director’s seasoned skill.
While the action and adventure elements are sure to be enough for some fans, the film is also trying to get across a message concerning the advancement and abuse of technology. At the center of the story is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a young man who admires James Halliday and is trying to win the prize hidden in The Oasis. Wade, also known as Parzival, meets Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and the two team up. But a company—one that encourages gameplay and then enslaves gamers to work within The Oasis when they can’t pay the debt they build within the game—has motives of their own. The story at its basic function feels similar to The Goonies or Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Spielberg and screenwriters Zak Penn and Ernest Cline infuse so many different commentaries that it becomes somewhat distracting and ultimately takes away from the development of the characters in the film. With this kind of epic adventure amongst a slew of iconic characters featured throughout the film, Parzival and Art3mis should stand firmly in charge of the emotional tone of the film, and unfortunately that doesn’t happen.
Ready Player One has its moments of greatness, scenes that will have pop culture fans swooning in admiration of the visual indulgence happening on screen. With themes of capitalism, insights into the negative aspects of gamer culture, and warnings of technology’s stranglehold on our attention, the film has a message to impart, but forgets to connect it to strong characters that we can root for along the path. Still, this film is pure nostalgia for fans of pop culture and it never hides that fact.
Movie Score: 3.5/5