An even more callow cousin to Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin, Ready Player One combines motion-capture performance with state-of-the-art animation to free the filmmaker from the constraints of the traditional, live-action format. Yet form seems to be about all the movie is really interested in.
That’s a shame, because Ready Player One—based on Ernest Cline’s young-adult book of the same name—is rife with ideas worth exploring. In 2045, the squalid everyday has given way to a pop culture-laden virtual reality. Most people spend their days plugged into the Oasis, where you can interact with characters from your favorite TV shows, video games, and movies while participating in a hunt for an invaluable easter egg placed there by the game’s enigmatic designer.
This is all laboriously explained to us in voiceover by Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an orphaned gamer determined to win this worldwide contest. He’s not only up against the virtual friends who compete by his side, but also the agents of a totalitarian tech company who are operating inside the Oasis in hopes of taking it over. Add the intricacies of the contest itself—there are various levels to complete and three different keys to obtain—and your head is spinning before the movie even gets started.
I’ll admit, I initially got a kick out of the frequent pop-culture references inside the Oasis. An early car-racing sequence—in which Wade (or at least his glassy-eyed avatar, Parzival) drives the DeLorean from Back to the Future through a course that features both King Kong and a dinosaur from Jurassic Park—has the filmmaking verve and wit we come to expect from Spielberg. But fairly soon it becomes clear that little meaning is being attached to any of the pop artifacts thrown at the screen. They rush by in a deluge, often devoid of context or significance. Perhaps this is why I actually liked the extended sequence in which Parzival and his gamer friends find themselves looking for a clue inside The Shining. The filmmaking here not only has a more tactile quality, due to its faithful recreation of the original’s contours, but it also pauses long enough to consider what made The Shining so evocative.
Still, most of the pop-culture references in the film are treated with blithe dismissal. This jibes with the movie’s ultimate point: that reality matters more than unreality, as fun as that unreality might be. For all its nostalgia for pop culture of the past, Ready Player One ultimately posits that actual, face-to-face relationships are what sustain us. (Wade says as much in a hokey speech during the movie’s climax, after he has met his fellow gamers in real life.) Fair point, but this seems disingenuous coming from a filmmaker who has formed so much of the pop-culture landscape over the last five decades. Spielberg, more than anyone, should know that imagination—and the artifacts borne of it—matters too.
This is why the use of the Iron Giant in Ready Player One is such a misstep. In its own 1999 film, this figure represented the beauty and bravery of pacifism; here, it’s dropped into a climactic battle sequence to kick ass. The Iron Giant may not be “real,” but the ideas behind it are—and they have real import in the real world. Having it wipe out generic bad guys renders the Iron Giant, like much of Ready Player One, meaningless.