The recent arguments over the apparent overabundance (to some) of pop culture nostalgia in the world have seen themselves simplify down to two trains of thought: Good or Bad. It seems that the most vocal out there believe that either nostalgia is either something to be clutched at desperately or to be outright rejected. Steven Spielberg, on the other hand, is more interested in digging deeper with nostalgia, discovering why we like it so much, why we cling to it, and why it’s ultimately best to let it go. He’s far more interested in a middle ground, where nostalgia and celebration of things of the past can be accepted, as long as it comes with a warning label. With Ready Player One, it feels like Spielberg is celebrating the things that give people their passion, just so long as they take that passion out into the real world to make new, exciting things with others.
Set in the year 2045, Ready Player One gives us a future where most of the world has gone to shit. Not in any exciting Mad Max-style way either, but rather mundane, grimy, and crummy. Where fossil fuels and global warming turned life into something slummy and grey. Because of the, the majority of the population live their lives in the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), where the can be anyone, do anything, and live their lives as they see fit. People earn livings, go to school, and pay off debt in the OASIS. Five years ago, it’s creator, James Halliday, passed away, announcing that he had placed a hidden quest for three keys in it’s vast worlds. Whoever gets those three keys can access his ultimate Easter Egg, gaining control over his vast fortune and even the OASIS itself.
Wade Watts (played by Tye Sheridan), is one of thousands of players who have devoted their time in the OASIS to study Halliday’s life for any clue or edge they can get in finding the keys, as no one has ever gotten their hands on even one. Once he gets his hands on the first key, he sparks a mad dash across the digital landscapes, with he and his friends, known as The High Five, racing against the unscrupulous IOI corporation and their greedy CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) for control of the digital paradise.
The beauty (and to some particularly vocal viewers on social media, the detriment) of the OASIS is that it’s been created by a man who’s social awkwardness led him deeper into pop culture, and thus his creation is packed to the gills with it. Want to go to a planet that’s just Minecraft? It’s there. Want to go mountain climbing with Batman? No problem. Want to walk through a living re-creation of any of thousands of movies, video games, or televisions shows? It’s all in the OASIS. In Ernie Cline’s original novel, it was reference upon reference, one pop culture nod after another, all building towards a pretty satisfying (to this reviewer) heroes journey.
Spielberg, Cline, and co-writer Zak Penn feel like they wanted to take the time to adapt the film into something a bit deeper than that this time around. The references are all there, sure, but a great majority of them are found as avatars for the other players, and nearly none of them are so important that they couldn’t be replaced with something of an original creation. But the past it what helps shape who we are, and the creators respect that enough to not only keep the movie chock-full of these references, but also make them a big part of who James Halliday is as a character.
Although Tye Sheridan is perfectly fine as the main character, it’s Mark Rylance who surprises yet again as Halliday. Wade goes back to the archives of Halliday’s life over and over again, looking for clue in the life of the man he treats as his idol. During those moments, Rylance plays Halliday as a man who is uncomfortable not only in his own skin, but also with his own creation, as successful as it may be. Someone who could even possibly be on the spectrum, Halliday retreats into the OASIS to avoid the fear that real life gave him, and before he knew it, everyone else was retreating into that world, making him a creator who despised what had become of the OASIS, something that is mirrored to maximum effect during an absolute banger of an action sequence set inside a very popular movie from 1980.
Mendelsohn makes for a perfect weasel of a corporate villain, and Olivia Cooke is infectious as the intelligent, steadfast Art3mis, who in the real world is one of the leaders of the resistance trying to keep IOI from winning the easter egg and monetizing the OASIS with micro-transactions and paid leveling. Their character motivations are clear and true, and Cooke particularly does a good job of playing a character who’s just as willing to go on a dance date as she is to go infiltrating the offices of IOI.
What’s astounding is that the 71-year-old Spielberg has the wonder, relentlessness, and inventiveness to put a film of this magnitude and energy together when filmmakers half his age are still trying to figure things out. The man is the master of using the language of film to maximum effect. This is most evident in the films big action scenes, including the aforementioned film-within-a-film adventure, as well as the gigantic opening race and insane final battle. Spielberg has always been a master of action set-pieces, but with both this and his previous The Adventures of Tin-Tin, the audience is able to see what he can do when there are no physical limitations holding him back. I still contend that the one-shot chase scene in the middle of Tin-Tin is one of his greatest scenes, and huge chunks Ready Player One have a lot of that same vibe.
This is a movie that is truly packed into every side of the screen, and while some of the hundreds of references are only surface deep, Spielberg knows how to use the big ones for the biggest WOW moments. He takes unrelated properties like The Iron Giant, Gundam, Serenity, and Back to the Future and mashes them all together like a joyous fan writing his own fiction. it’s not only intoxicating, but it’s just plain cool to see one of our greatest directors play with this many toys. He takes these properties and smashes them together with maximum effect. I still cannot believe a Steven Spielberg film contains references to Eraser, Robocop, Akira, and HALO, amongst many others. One particular reveal of a famous 80s horror icon and a characters reaction had not only me, but the entire theater, roaring with applause and laughter. It contains what may be one of the greatest PG-13 F-bombs of all time.
The special effects on display are never once frustrating or distracting, as the world of the OASIS is so fully realized that I found myself forgetting I was watching a CGI world for a bit. Make no mistake, the characters are never once made to look completely real, save for a few special instances, but it’s such an immersive world that you can help get lost in it. Spielberg is aided by his usual crew save for one large omission: John Williams is absent from scoring duties, replaced by the more than capable sounds of Alan Silvestri. If any composure was qualified to put the soundtrack together, it’s the man who gave us music from Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the Back to the Future trilogy. His score soars with a wonderful theme and delightful throwbacks to previous work.
Despite the explosions and the madcap action taking place, the film also takes it’s moments to pull back a bit and warn not only Wade, but also the audience that it’s important to embrace new things and keep your head in reality. Halliday’s memories constantly show Wade a man of regret, one who wished he wasn’t so enamored with his toys and could be in the real world doing real things as simple as dancing with a girl. It turns Halliday into a much more sympathetic, even tragic character that what his book counterpart was, and both this change and Rylance’s performance anchor the heart and emotion of the film.
Let it not be said that both Cline and Spielberg are not softies, however. There are a few moments in the film that come off as cheesy, particularly in the romantic scenes between Wade and Art3mis. Even so, there’s a sweetness to how awkward they are, as if Wade is growing up, learning actual social skills before our eyes. His initial attraction to Art3mis starts out in a potentially problematic way, with Wade ready to profess his love early, but it’s shut down when Art3mis chastises him for just being in love with an idea, instead of reality. It’s not only a good change to the characters and their relationship from the book, but also a lovely summary of the gist of the film. Being in love with something that’s fake is fine, but it’s not real. Recognize the love in the real, get out and understand it.
As far as what side of the fence to fall on in the great nostalgia debate, consider me firmly in the middle. Film, television, music and video games all helped shape me into the person I am today. Hell, Steven Spielberg himself is the reason I love movies, and seeing Jurassic Park when I was 7 forever changed my life. It’s important, however, to recognize the need to move forward. The past is fine to celebrate and embrace, it gives us connections and helps us recognize where one another came from, but it shouldn’t be something we cling to so desperately. Pop culture and nostalgia are meant to be looked back on, not constantly brought back to the front. Spielberg recognizes this, making a few additional changes to the end of the book that cement the idea of embracing what’s new and what’s real, rather than constantly living in a fantasy world that we can never grow from.
The Final Pop
Ready Player One shows that Steven Spielberg is still a master blockbuster filmmaker. His inventive, escalating action scenes contain the energy and delight of a much younger man still enthralled by telling stories. The changes between the film and the novel help clarify a sentiment that embraces a love for nostalgia while urging us to move forward to build a new and exciting future. Plus the Back to the Future DeLorean races against King Kong and the Jurassic Park T-Rex. HOW COOL IS THAT???