Ignore the marketing for Ready Player One. Though the trailer is packed with pop culture references, the film itself is a classic coming-of-age adventure tale about a diverse band of protagonists battling against the machinations of an oppressive authoritarian force. That places it squarely in director Steven Spielberg’s wheelhouse, and while Ready Player One is not his best effort, it is a hell of a lot of fun while you’re in the theatre.
It also feels like a missed opportunity. Like the Ernest Cline book that inspired it, Ready Player One never interrogates its iconography, to the point that the movie hinted at in the margins often seems more interesting than the one we see onscreen. Many viewers will probably leave dissatisfied with a script rife with plot holes that glosses over anything it finds inconvenient.
Whether or not you’re one of those viewers depends on your relationship to pop culture. Ready Player One tells the story of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an obsessive gamer living in a high-rise trailer park in Columbus, Ohio who spends most of his time immersed in a Virtual Realty simulation known as the OASIS. Created by an awkward introvert named James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the OASIS is a futuristic Disneyland that exists free of any legal concerns about licensed content. There are digital theme parks dedicated to every pop culture franchise you can imagine, as well as night clubs, casinos, and other non-branded forms of entertainment.
The plot, however, is interested primarily in the theme parks – or at least the subject matter that inspired them. Wade is on a quest to find three keys and an Easter Egg hidden somewhere in the OASIS. The contest is Halliday’s Last Will and Testament, so whoever finds the egg will inherit Halliday’s fortune and his controlling interest in the OASIS. The lucrative prize fuels a digital arms race for hobbyists like Wade (aka Parzival) and the employees of a dystopian electronics corporation called Innovative Online Industries (IOI).
Finding the keys demands an encyclopedic knowledge of 80s pop culture and an invasive familiarity with private details from Halliday’s personal life. Wade has both, but he doesn’t make any progress until a chance encounter with another egg hunter named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who also doubles as his love interest. That connection proves to be the heart of the film. Despite the high-tech trappings, the answers to the Halliday’s puzzle are more relatable truisms about love and the value of real world relationships.
The emphasis on the human characters is a smart bit of misdirection that makes the movie far less cloying than you might expect. There are so many references that they ultimately cease to matter, bringing the characters to the fore and leaving you free to cheer the background details you recognize and ignore the ones you don’t (chances are good that at least a few of them will hit your childhood). Either way, the original book has been tweaked for general audiences, so you don’t need to know anything about the Atari’s back catalogue in order to enjoy the film. The action is thrilling and the characters are easy to root for, while Ben Mendelsohn’s vile CEO provides a detestable villain to root against.
There’s just nothing terribly remarkable about that kind of story, which is too bad because there’s some legitimately fascinating world building that gets relegated to the periphery. The movie recognizes that digital spaces can serve as the primary vector for social interaction, and its depiction of the OASIS feels both accurate and eerily prescient. People do, in fact, retreat into digital worlds to escape a squalid reality. Similarly, people are able to form online friendship circles that are just as rewarding and meaningful as their real world counterparts (all of Wade’s friends are people he knows through the OASIS). Gamers already dress their avatars in the garb of their favorite fictional characters, using pop culture trinkets to build new personalities based on the values those trinkets are supposed to signify. Modern Virtual Reality isn’t quite as robust as it is in Ready Player One, but neither is the OASIS entirely implausible.
That’s why you end up wishing the filmmakers were had more to say about the world they’ve created. From debtor’s prisons to the rise of cryptocurrency, there are a lot of ideas in Ready Player One that are worth considering in relation to the modern world. Unfortunately, the film is too much of a crowd-pleaser to do that kind of thematic legwork. Spielberg narrows the focus to his cast of characters, and while he still has the assured hand of a professional, the story he’s telling isn’t as impactful as the world it’s set in. The boy defies the odds and challenges a powerful institutional force. Along the way he meets a girl. Anything that makes Ready Player One feel unique becomes the backdrop for a story you’ve seen a hundred times before.
Ready Player One is not a bad movie. In fact, it’s far better than we had any reason to expect, sending you out of the theatre on the kind of roller coaster high that Spielberg mastered in the front half of his career. At the same time, Earnest Cline’s book is still a work of fan fiction, and the movie never fully rises above the blatant fantasies of its author. That can be frustrating if you’re not on the same wavelength. Ready Player One is fun, but it’s tough to shake the feeling that some people weren’t invited to the party.