Ready Player One is An Exercise in Neurotic Nostalgia (REVIEW)
Ready Player One strives to be ‘The One Reference To Rule Them All’ and can be overbearing in how much it tries to throw every childhood associated property from the 70s through the 2000s at you. Still, if you’re intimately familiar with the content, the related memes, callbacks, and references, Ready Player One may very well be one of your most favorite movies.
(Note: With the exception of one character giveaway, no major story line info has been spoiled. Continue reading at your own risk.)
After thinking long and hard about the film, I’ve been able to come away with the following:
Your level of enjoyment of the Ready Player One will be 100% based on:
- Your archival knowledge of all things pop culture from roughly 1972 – 1995
(Of course there are more recent properties thrown in to reel in millennials and Gen Z like Halo, Minecraft, Borderlands, Gears of War and Overwatch, but the majority is based in the aforementioned decades)
- Your understanding of gaming mechanics and tropes
- Your comprehension and interpretation of the dialogue and its delivery
As someone who’s never read the book that the movie is adapted from, I had no prior knowledge upon which to prop my expectations. I could only go by the drive-by trailers which made me interested based on the sheer density of the content. All I saw were video games I loved, tech everywhere–and a Gundam–and I was generally sold. I saw a very direct line into my preferred fandoms, exciting cameos, and a presumption that this was a movie that revolved around a major VR battle–and I didn’t expect much else. Perhaps that thinking insulated me enough to not be completely disappointed with what I got. I went in hot but overall I came away from the spectacle feeling a bit lukewarm.
The setting is the year 2045, where we’ve gone through enough wars over food and water shortages to devolve into living in trailer homes stacked 15 high, yet we’re technologically advanced enough to have haptic-feedback suits, gloves, and advanced-sensory headsets that deliver a fully immersible virtual reality world that has essentially replaced the reality–and oh yeah there are drones that deliver Pizza Hut. The backstory revolves around a game creator named James Halliday (Mark Rylance) who, with an impossibly perfect obsession for the 80s, has long died but buried a major Easter Egg somewhere within in his VR game world, known as OASIS (OASIS is basically Sword Art Online meets The Matrix). The player that discovers the Easter Egg shall inherit
the Earth OASIS itself as well as Halliday’s fortune of a bajillion dollars. To get to the egg, there are three trials one must complete which grants three keys that unlock the door to salvation. Enter the hero Wade Watts/Parzival (Tye Sheridan) whose deep obsession with the game and it’s creator, leads to the films storyline quest. He’s joined by his best friend Aech/Helen Harris (Lena Waithe) who is a crack mechanic that can build pretty much any custom design in the game world, and serves as Parzival’s logic totem. Parzival eventually meets up with the famous player Art3mis/Samantha Cook (Olivia Cook) who is a better gamer than him, but they use their combined wits and skills to go for the Easter Egg. There’s also Sho/Akihade Karatsu (Philip Zhao) and Daito/Toshiro Yoshiaki (Win Morisaki) who often quest with Parzival and alternate between being his saviors and his sidekicks. The group is racing against IOI, a corporate conglomerate that has massive armies of players, analysts and equipment that farm the game in a relentless, multi-national powered pursuit to find the Easter Egg. And then there’s the millions (billions?) of other people with cool avatars ranging from the Final Fantasy-eque to random fantasy creatures. Though they are all after the same thing, their involvement is fairly inconsequential until the final half of the movie.
While I was hopeful for the performances of the main cast, their delivery was one of my biggest points of contention. Though I loved the OASIS VR-character designs of Parzival, Art3mis, Aech and friends (collectively known as The High Five), the human counterparts felt more one dimensional than their avatars. I found great issue with most of the dialogue and over-acting that felt both cheesy and confusingly referential. While I understand there might have been the intention of using camp to pay homage to the style of popular 80s movies, I largely cringed at the more awful lines. For example: “You killed my mother’s sister”. That line was lobbed at one of the main, but rote, bad guys named Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who stalked around in a Nega-Superman meets Vince McMahon avatar. Even though the proclamation was expressed in anger, it was interpreted in the complete opposite, and resulted in a boisterous, laughter-filled response in my theater. Maybe that was the intended effect. However, coupled with the aggressive helpfulness of The High Five when they’re on screen in their human forms, I felt everything boiled down to me simply missing some in-joke. But it happened far too often to the point I was second guessing alot of the conversations. That leads to what I believe that’s one of the greatest weaknesses of this movie–if you miss the joke or are not completely in on any narrative piece of the story, you’re completely rudderless.
There was also a strange air of elitism wafting throughout the film. There were frequent tests of one’s “geek cred” leading me to believe that if anyone spoke negatively about the movie with the wrong crowd (i.e. gamergate types), then they’d be excoriated rather than their opinion weighed fairly. Mainly because they would be deemed “not a ‘real’ nerd” for catching a reference. It’s sadly very gatekeeper-ish. Even though I’m kind of the target audience as a millennial, longtime gamer and pop culture critic, I was repeatedly questioning on who this film was made for.
That said, there’s many bright spots. On its face the premise of the movie is workable and as a straight popcorn film it’s entertaining. The movie is extremely visually impressive in numerous scenes and downright superior than most genre movies that utilize mixed media. Especially in the spots where the CG characters literally walked into live action scenes. The transitions were seamless and beautiful. There is a part of the movie where the characters are transported to the set of a famous horror movie and I was a fairly shocked with how good it looked. The composite imaging was so outstanding that I wish I was able to pause the film so I could really study the details. I also felt this way throughout the film, as there are countless large crowd shots where Spielberg and co. decided to toss in as many comic, cartoon and video game characters as possible. Ready Player One is a Warner Brothers movie so you’ll see any and all (and I do mean virtually all) characters associated with the brand as well as a ton of licensed characters from Blizzard, Star Trek, Star Wars, Sega, Cowboy Bebop, Spaceballs–the list is beyond imagination. I had a blast spotting characters (the battle scenes), objects (Aech’s workshop), and phrases (check out the graffiti in the upgrade scene) I recognized and had fun essentially playing a modified version of Where’s Waldo through the duration of the movie. Curiously though, there’s no Spielberg properties presente which I found out later was a conscious decision made by the man himself who shared that he didn’t want his properties to overshadow the others or seem like he was playing favorites.
Ready Player One is a treasure trove of Easter Eggs and performs inception onto itself. It will either thrill you with the ambitiousness of trying to fit every single reference, call back, and replay from bygone eras; or it will frustrate you to your core because there’s too much to catch or and not nearly enough time to identify it all. But one could argue that, perhaps, that’s the brilliance of the movie. If I could liken Ready Player One to anything, it would be a katamari. Katamari is an (awesome) early 2000s game where you run around as a tiny, oblong-headed kid with a sticky ball that picks things up (literally anything) and accumulates more stuff as it rolls around. At first, when it’s still small, you can only pick up other small objects like paper clips. But eventually, as the ball grows in size, you’re able to pick up larger objects. It gets to the point where you can roll up pets, people, cars, buildings…eventually whole countries and then the planet itself. Ready Player One felt a lot like a huge katamari, chock full of alot of interesting pieces that are cool to marvel at, but still an indiscriminate ball of stuff ranging from the familiar to the unrecognizable.
How you (and just about every reviewer) will feel about Ready Player One will fluctuate wildly. If you care about gaming, hunting for all matter of geekdom/pop culture nostalgia, and some weird dialogue–check out this movie. If you don’t care about any of that–skip it.