Spielberg’s film is a spectacle that’s more than just nostalgia
The biggest question I had going into Ready Player One was, absent any and all pop culture references, could the film stand on its own? After all, the book would spend pages poring over details about the films and video games of the ’80s — and many pivotal plot points would require the characters to have encyclopedic knowledge of that era. Would the movie put us through the same tedium?
Mercifully, no. Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One is colorful, frenetic and fun. It’s bursting with nods to decades of movies and games, but Spielberg mostly uses them to create the atmosphere of a world obsessed with pop culture. (What could be more realistic than that?) The film takes the broad strokes of the book and adapts them to make nostalgia more of an ambience than a narrative crutch. The result is something that feels like the biggest tribute to escapism; ironically, it’s when we leave the pop culture confinements of the virtual world, however sparingly, that the movie feels less fulfilling.
Ready Player One is unapologetically a commercial action movie designed to put spectacle first. To get there as fast as possible, it front-loads a lot of world-building by way of narration. Within the first five minutes, you know everything you need to know about this world: It’s the year 2045 and everyone — quite literally everyone — escapes the derelict future by plugging into a parallel virtual world called the OASIS. As we watch our hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) — better known by his online handle, Parzival — climb his way down from his home atop a vertical trailer park (“the stacks”) to his hidden VR den, we see a montage of neighbors logged in and miming various tasks that seem to coordinate with whatever their in-world characters are doing. It’s comical, both in execution and in the premise that so many people would be using motion controls. But if you swap VR for mobile phones, it doesn’t feel that far off — and, to be sure, people dancing in VR headsets is way more visually interesting than someone tapping on their iPhone.
Watts’ obsessions are less about pop culture writ large and more about the pop culture that Halliday consumed. All his expertise is tied to Halliday in some way, and indeed, where the movie differs most from its source material is in the Big Three Puzzles, which have largely been rewritten. Without giving anything away, it’s knowledge of Halliday as a human that plays a more substantial role here than the pop culture references themselves. It isn’t about knowing the factoids of his favorite movie so much as it is knowing his biggest dreams and regrets at the time he saw it.
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