I will say right up front that I have two very distinct sets of feelings about “Ready Player One.” The first of these notes how much fun it is to sit there and point out each and every visual in the film that borrows a character or an idea from my youth. Steven Spielberg’s work here, which is based on the novel by Ernest Cline (who wrote the screenplay alongside Zak Penn), is full of such moments. It is the film’s whole raison d’etre – to offer up a veritable orgy of 1980s nostalgia.
Here is the thing though—and I’m certainly not the first person to say this or to issue my other criticisms—there is little reason for the references to be there, or to be so specifically geared towards the 1980s. Ostensibly, it’s because James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the creature of the Oasis, a virtual world where people in 2045 spend much of their time, loved the 1980s, but that never quite feels like enough. Or, rather, it feels like enough for an incredibly hollow world, but not more than that.
In its most basic terms, the story is about a group of people in the Oasis who are on the hunt for an Easter Egg Halliday included. The first person who finds the egg is given ownership of the Oasis. Because Halliday created the place and it’s a search for his egg and he loved the 1980s, everyone who goes on the hunt becomes invested in this nostalgia.
So, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) and his friends which include Samantha (Olivia Cooke) and Helen (Lena Waithe) to greater and lesser degrees wear their 1980s knowledge like badges. Wade’s avatar, Parzival, drives a DeLorean, Helen’s avatar, Aech, creates an Iron Giant. They are familiar with Chucky and the differences between the movie “The Shining” and the book (the references do go slightly earlier than the ’80s at times). But, it feels entirely about the cachet that comes with knowing the references, not about their meaning.
Worse, this basic premise is at odds with itself. The Halliday we are given in the film is a man who does not want people to emulate his life, but rather a man who wants others to understand the mistakes he’s made. As a film, “Ready Player One” argues that the real world and people’s real lives are more important than the virtual world and virtual lives in the Oasis. And yet, Halliday creates a series of puzzles that can only be solved by learning everything about him and understanding 1980s references and the film wants the audience to stop and admire every bit of ’80s nostalgia it can possibly include.
The film sequences inside the Oasis are wonderful. They are vibrant and imaginative and jam packed with visuals. Even the story that takes place inside the Oasis is head and shoulders better than the one outside it. Despite the mixed messages offered by Halliday, the quest for the Easter Egg is enjoyable, and watching the puzzles get solved is fun.
The same is not true of what takes place outside the Oasis, where the world is bland and lifeless. The real world is colorless and somewhere that people wouldn’t want to spend time. Then there’s the story that takes place outside the Oasis, which is astoundingly dull in comparison to the one inside. It involves the head of an evil corporation, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who is clearly already well off and running a successful company, wanting even more, and throwing hordes of people into the quest within the Oasis so he can get the Easter Egg. He is a fourth rate Bond villain which Mendelsohn, through sheer force of will, is able to elevate to a third rate one. Even action sequences in the real world feel laborious.
This movie then, which is all about teaching us to live our own lives and that we need to take a break from fantasy every once in a while, comes to a crashing halt every time it follows its own suggestion. The irony is almost comical.
Again, not everything which takes place inside the Oasis is brilliant—T.J. Miller’s evil henchman, I-R0k, feels as though he’s from an entirely different film—but it is all far superior to whatever might be happing in Columbus, Ohio in 2045. We can accept that what happens in side the Oasis doesn’t have to follow real-world rules, but when the world itself doesn’t follow real-world rules, that’s trouble.
With “Ready Player One,” Steven Spielberg makes it clear that he can still spin adventure tales that people will love, and the world inside the Oasis is exactly that. It may be too crammed with references that exist solely so that people who watch at home can pause it and identify everyone and everything, but the quest offered is great. The problem is the quest doesn’t work when combined with the real world and real people the film offers up, and that makes the entire Oasis adventure feel more hollow.
photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures