The early reactions to Ready Player One after its screening at SXSW were mostly positive, but don’t count io9's among them. It isn’t so much a movie about loving old video games and other cultural artifacts. It’s about loving to love those things, which makes Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of the bestselling novel feel hollow despite—or maybe because of—the relentless pop culture references it throws at you.
People applauded logos at the screening of Ready Player One I saw last night. Warner Bros. logo? Applause. Amblin logo? Huge applause. This movie is ready-made for people who want to clap at anything and everything they see. Based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel of the same name, the movie focuses on Wade Watts, a hapless orphan who spends most of his waking hours in a global VR simulation called the Oasis. It’s supposed to be a cosmic amalgam of every video game, genre movie, and geek artifact ever made, where players compete to earn money to keep playing to earn more money.
Like nearly everyone else on Earth, Wade—who calls himself Parzival in the Oasis—plays to find three keys left by the mass simulation’s creator James Halliday. The person who finds them will gain control of the Oasis, making them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Parzival winds up adventuring with buddies and rivals-turned-friends to try and beat the game before the legions of the evil IOI corporation can do so.
Zak Penn’s script does a better job paying homage to video game culture than Cline’s book did. It name drops ad-blocking and Twitch live streams, and it features a broader and more up-to-date swath of characters from recent games. The big problem with Ready Player One being a nostalgia bomb is that it largely elides the complexities of the actual relationships fans have with the things they love. We love the video games, cartoons, and comics of our youth because they had hidden depths, layers that we either added or discovered in engaging with them. Ready Player One’s hit parade of characters, callbacks, and cheat codes has nothing to say about the icons it summons up from the collective geek subconscious. Most cameos and references happen too fast for them to land well or mean anything.
The moments where certain games and movies do get extended spotlights all feel like instances of perverse strip-mining. Parzival and his crew get plopped into sequences from a famous horror movie, which gets reduced to simply being a backdrop and a platform for jokes. The act of creation gets lofty lip service, but the film deliver characters who rattle off far more rote memorizations than artistic appreciations.
Ready Player One doesn’t show any insight as to why we like comics, video games, TV shows, or movies. It just takes as a given that we do, an assumption that makes the movie feel hollow. Parzival’s motley crew itself feels like a recreation of the Goonies kids playing through a video game environment. Cline called on Spielberg’s famous kid-centric action comedy in his book, but nothing interesting gets done with this instance of recursion. It just sits there, waiting for its pat on the head, like a pet used to getting taken out for walkies every day.
Worse, Ready Player One reinforces hoary old stereotypes about nerds and fandom cultures, including the centering of white males whose love of stuff coincides with being socially maladroit. Their arrested development comes with a hyperspecific knowledge that gets messaged as the key to fulfillment. The evil corporation has a corps of nerds, too, giving Ready Player One an odd feedback loop that makes it a corporate illusion that rails against corporate illusion. Spielberg’s skill with spectacle is on display here, twinkling through a constant flurry of envelope-pushing CGI sequences. However, there are too many bloodless moments that drag on and the most intriguing ideaspaces—like how much society would actually change when everyone escapes into VR—are left under-explored. Everything that happens in the film’s dilapidated near-future feels terrible, and not only in the way it’s supposed to. With the exception of Lena Waithe, who plays Aech, the principal cast all turn in performances that feel perfunctory at best.
Ready Player One exists as the equivalent of a video game that uses microtransactions. Players have an insidious choice in games built on the controversial model: They can either spend hours playing to get the gear and rank they covet, or pay real-world money to acquire those things much faster. The institutional power of Warner Bros. essentially lets the studio able to use pay-to-win mechanics on the audience, unlocking laughter or emotional response by sheer volume of its resources. It’s the ne plus ultra of franchise mash-up-a-go-go mega-spectacle. And the overload makes missing bits of nerd iconography—no Marvel superheroes in here, kids!—all the more conspicuous. There’s a glimpse of a cult 1980s show, a snatch of old-school movie soundtrack, all speeding by in a way designed to make you want to buy the home video release and painstakingly annotate it frame by frame, but that’s about it.
Like a rude orgy participant, Ready Player One insistently rubs itself on you in ways that it thinks will turn you on, whispering “talk nerdy to me” into your ear constantly, and with increasing insistence. Depending on your kink, the frottage will work at times, but the movie drags when the nostalgia stops for one of its obligatory refractory periods. And, just like a real orgy, Ready Player One is inevitably going to send someone home unsatisfied and depressed.