Ready Player One manages to put combine fanboy fantasies with nostalgia on shameless display. The visuals are beautiful, but still don’t distract from the lack of a message regarding our own society’s obsession with nostalgia-driven pop culture and dependency on technology is excessively apparent. Directed by Steven Spielberg and adapted to the screen by Zak Penn and the novel’s author, Ernest Cline, the film’s primary concern with finishing the game above all else forces all other aspects of the story to ring hollow.
It’s 2045 and society has pretty much fallen by the wayside. No longer does anyone care about anything and things are so bad that the only reprieve is to log into the virtual reality game known as “The Oasis.” Created by Halliday (Mark Rylance), the tech guru inspired by the late Steve Jobs, The Oasis is a place where anyone can be and do anything. However, the biggest connection with the real world is the money lost in the game. Lose in The Oasis, lose money in the real world only to end up at a “loyalty center”. No one is to give out their real names and everyone has an avatar they’ve created for themselves while being allowed to interact with anyone logged in. It’s like having a plethora of internet friends you just haven’t met in real life. It all sounds very familiar to our own real world, but with obvious exceptions.
Halliday has hidden three Easter eggs within The Oasis for players to find. Whoever finds the Easter eggs and wins will be given full control of The Oasis and of the tech company in the real world. Parzival (Tye Sheridan) is obsessed with finding the Easter eggs and, like pretty much everyone else, is also an unofficial Halliday historian. To figure out how to find the Easter eggs he, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and a group of friends which include Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao) , and Daito (Win Morisaki) must discover the secrets embedded in the game and prevent Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), Halliday’s former intern, from continuing to cause significant real-world damage.
Ready Player One lacks any heart. The teens are fighting the Innovative Online Industries (IOI), but there’s very little world-building outside of The Oasis to warrant much care. We see bits and pieces of a world that’s gotten so bad many would rather stay locked away in a fantasy, but beyond showing a bit of the stacks (a rough neighborhood where homes are built on top of each other), there’s no major tether to the real world for even the fake one to truly matter. The real problem with the film is that it’s structured in a way that feels like it should have real world commentary, but doesn’t at all. It plays out like too much of a bad fantasy and isn’t even up to date, lost to the throes of never-ending ’80s references (that become exhausting) and nothing in between. In present day, Ready Player One’s premise would equate to Marvel fanboys worshiping Stan Lee and everything he likes instead of Halliday and trying to find all the MCU Easter eggs on order to win something.
The film is filled to the brim with tropes done wrong. The falling in love while dancing trope and the evil mastermind trying to stay in power, but greed is his downfall trope. Then there’s the “reality is better than fantasy” lesson that permeates the air throughout the film, although it lacks any kind of foundation or depth. Ready Player One has all of the elements that are usually present in a sci-fi/fantasy and yet doesn’t know what to do with them. Instead, it winds up being nostalgic for the sake of being nostalgic and has no substance. Given that the teens are living in 2045, the film has a hard-on for the ’80s in a way that’s trying awfully hard to be cool, while also being irrelevant to current times. It’s over-the-top and headache-inducing to watch what is essentially a two-hour live-action ad. In addition, the characters themselves reference no other time but the ’80s, something that is borderline ridiculous for the characters who probably weren’t even born until at least the 2020s.
Most everything in the film is contrived to give the story some stakes, but it falls flat. The “resistance” fighting against Sorrento in the real-world is practically a joke because it’s so underdeveloped to the point of being underwhelming. We’re only told about it via Art3mis (whose real name is Samantha) and we’re immediately supposed to rally behind the gamers’ fight against “evil” without much backstory or even investment in the characters themselves. Without fleshing out the characters and what they stand for, how is the audience supposed to cheer them on? Their journey unfortunately feels just as empty as the rest of the film.
One can potentially enjoy Ready Player One and see it as meaningless entertainment, but despite having fantastic visuals and great editing, the film is weighed down by so much nostalgia and never-ending pop culture references while being devoid of everything else. It’s an empty shell filled with unrealized potential that chooses visuals and an ungrounded plot over thoughtful storytelling, real-world implications and characters with depth. Simply put, Ready Player One is like being stuck playing a lackluster game that goes on for far too long.
Ready Player One is weighed down by so much nostalgia and pop culture references while being devoid of everything else.