The ostensible conflict in Ready Player One, the film version of Ernest Cline’s pop culture cluster-bomb of a novel, involves a corporation that wants to cover virtual reality with advertisements. It’s an odd take on villainy for a film that is entirely fueled by the exploitation of intellectual properties for cheap thrills. Not that that’s entirely a bad thing; even commercials are capable of rising to the level of art every now and again, even commercials that run for 140 minutes.
In the year 2045, humanity has given up trying to fix the rapidly deteriorating Earth and focused on living their lives in the Oasis, a virtual reality paradise that turns human existence into the world’s longest-running MMORPG. Before he died, Oasis creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) hid an Easter Egg in the program, promising whoever finds it total control over the Oasis itself. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), known in the Oasis as Parzival, takes it upon himself to find the Egg before it can be captured by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the joyless CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI).
Sorrento wants to control the Oasis so he can cover users’ field of vision with adverts, but Ready Player One already does that to an absurd, even punishing degree. Not a scene goes by without at least some reference to your favorite film, TV show, comic, or song hits of the 80s, 90s, and today. It’s a point that the film never really addresses, mainly because its endless parade of pop culture landmarks seems to be its sole reason for being.
Let me repeat that that isn’t always a bad thing. Director Steven Spielberg has clearly set out to make a classic, 80s-style, family-friendly, popcorn-worthy, science-fiction adventure. (It’s only rated PG-13 due to repeated use of a profanity that doesn’t start with an “F”.) Filling the screen with heroes, villains, and moments from that era makes sense metatextually even if never makes sense in-universe. There’s no real reason for an 18-year-old in 2045 to be so obsessed with 1980s trivia except for the fact that he’s clearly meant to be Ernest Cline’s avatar.
The constant “Hey, I know that reference” moments, in fact, give the film a buoyant, kinetic energy that helps propel it forward and hide a narrative covered in plot holes, contrivances, and conveniences. It’s a film meant to be enjoyed completely in the moment; as soon as you start thinking about it as a story, it quickly falls apart. As it happens, however, there’s a weightless giddiness to everything that’s insanely easy to tap into, even on an unconscious level.
There’s a distinct level of earnestness and feigned naïveté behind RPO’s over-saturated digital sheen, a kind of sincerity that’s infectious even if it isn’t wholly organic. Unlike something like Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, which similarly mined pop culture and video games for its aesthetic, it lacks maturity, genuine heart, or even a distinct brand of humor to power itself. It runs completely on the standardized, blockbuster-ready adventure-action fuel that Spielberg built his career off of. And for a lot of us, that’s enough to get you where you need to go.
When the film focuses entirely on being a rollicking good time, it succeeds wildly. Part of the hunt for the Easter Egg involves Parzival and his friends running through a simulation of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In the course of five minutes, Spielberg and writers Cline and Zak Penn run through every iconic aspect of the film, extrapolating boss-sized video game challenges from its twists, turns, and plot points. It’s expertly-paced, masterfully-visualized, pure entertainment. Eventually, however, that has to come to an end so that the characters can solve yet another pointless, egg-hunt riddle tying into James Halliday’s fractured psyche, torpedoing any built-up momentum in service of a story arc that’s difficult to care about.
The Shining sequence is RPO in a nutshell: exhilarating action performed by flat, one-dimensional characters that are part of a barely-there story. We get most of our exposition delivered to us by Wade’s voice-over narration in the film’s first act, and the remaining story never bothers to go beyond his descriptions. Nobody grows, nobody evolves, and even Wade’s ostensible character development gets undone by the film’s horribly unsatisfying ending. It’s a cast of static characters who only gain dimensions through the digital avatars they choose, and even that intriguing idea is never fully explored by the film.
Despite the thin narrative, the cast is mostly enjoyable, both in the real and virtual world. Tye Sheridan does a decent job as Wade, although between his two performances, the edge must be given to his voice over work as Parzival. A cross between a nameless Final Fantasy protagonist and Marty McFly, Sheridan’s guileless tenor is the perfect voice for Parzival’s emo-lite appearance and innocent demeanor. Ben Mendelsohn, for his part, actually works better as the flesh-and-blood antagonist than a digital bad guy. He’s appropriately villainous in both cases, but his avatar’s Clark Kent-as-mafioso-assassin get-up neuters his energy.
Only a handful of supporting characters make any kind of impact, mostly because so many of them are so woefully underwritten and defined solely by their relationships with Wade/Parzival, but nobody is outright awful. The best of the bunch is Olivia Cooke as Samantha/Art3mis, a fellow egg-hunter who’s positioned as a total bad-ass legend but ends up relegated to love interest and support staff, in that order. Cooke still does her best in the role, and she has a natural charm that elevates her above her material. On the other side of the narrative, we have Hannah John-Kamen as the impossibly-named F’Nale Zandor, Sorrento’s supermodel-esque enforcer. She’s about the only character without a digital counterpart, and her willingness to get her hands dirty combined with John-Kamen’s steely charisma makes her stand out.
The film’s strongest aspect isn’t its cast or its narrative, but its visuals, and it has an embarrassment of riches in that department. The action sequences don’t always connect — like the overly-chaotic and haphazard vehicle race that opens the film — but the landscapes are perfectly-constructed, and the digital characters are rendered with a captivating level of detail. The same could be said for the carefully-curated collection of 1980s pop hits on the soundtrack (although not so much for Alan Silvestri’s featureless score). For all its narrative shortcomings, RPO is never anything less than a feast for the eyes and ears. If as much care, planning, and clear passion had gone into beefing up the story as was spent on making the visual and sonic palettes pop, RPO could have truly soared.
In the end, your enjoyment of RPO will depend entirely on your willingness to give in to the film’s straight-to-the-heart-and-screw-the-brain use of a pop culture aesthetic that it only thinks it understands. It’s the equivalent of seeing a Great Wall made of every action figure character ever produced. While it’s an undeniably fun and giddy experience, in the end it’s really only plastic and has no inherent value beyond what you invest in it. As a focus for our own nostalgia-based serotonin triggers, it’s a complete success. As a stand-alone story, not so much. But hey! Pretty shiny things! YAY!
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-