It’s easy to understand what attracted Steven Spielberg to Ready Player One: it’s a story about a media mogul who captivates billions with a souped-up reinvention of the pop culture of his youth. The part of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Spielberg seems to have paid less attention to is the part where that same mogul fails to remedy a developing dystopia.
So pure a product of Hollywood that he might have raised on a film-set savannah by the MGM lion, Spielberg became a blue-chip director with movies that artfully counterposed a nostalgia for youth with the concerns of adulthood. His reputation for escapist entertainment was based on only one dimension of his work, but it’s a dimension he’s found it difficult to recapture in recent years.
Ready Player One has been seen as a test: can Spielberg be fun again? One reason he’s found more 21st-century success with his historical dramas than with his broader entertainments, though, is that the dramas open a path to relevance. Fantasy blockbusters have left Spielberg behind, as evidenced by two of this year’s biggest films: Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time. Both tackle race and identity head-on for a Trump-era audience, while Ready Player One stars a white guy who has female, black, and Asian sidekicks. You’re already making a new Indiana Jones movie, Mr. Spielberg: this didn’t have to be it.
That white guy is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), known as “Parzival” in the virtual-reality world of the OASIS. “Parzival” was Richard Wagner’s original name for the character Parsifal, an Aryan who goes on a crusade for the Holy Grail in an opera that Wagner objected to Jews conducting, so there’s one problem right there.
The OASIS is popular in 2044 because the real world, particularly in the towering slums of Ohio where Watts lives, is dismal and overcrowded. The plot of the film doesn’t hinge on addressing that situation, though: it’s about saving the OASIS for trufans instead of the bloodless corporation vying to take control after the death of the wonderland’s creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance).
That control is up for grabs because Halliday left his universe with the ultimate Easter egg, one that turns out to be so literal it’s surprising Peter Cottontail doesn’t make an appearance. The first player to complete three quests will gain Halliday’s shares in, and thus control over, the OASIS. A company called Innovative Online Industries (IOI) has deployed legions of professional gamers to crack the quests, but Watts thinks he might have an advantage because he’s closely studied Halliday’s life (conveniently archived for ready access) and thinks he might know where the late genius stashed his secrets.
Halliday was a nerd-culture buff, so getting in his head means climbing inside a DeLorean, building an Iron Giant, and grabbing a Madball. Ready Player One is dense with pop references from the ’80s to the present, making it an irresistible ticket for gen-X and many millennial viewers. It would take a few viewings to catch ’em all; the most obscure I caught was the signature weapon from the 1983 fantasy flick Krull.
The film most closely evoked by this franchise melee isn’t The Avengers, it’s The Lego Movie — and Ready Player One suffers by comparison. That film had fun with its canon-crossing premise, taking a little time to imagine what Gandalf might say to Dumbledore, or how those ’80s space guys would get along with Lego Batman. In Ready Player One, the blizzard of branding isn’t fun, it’s exhausting. In that sense, the movie may be all too faithful to the actual ’80s, when deregulation meant that kids’ entertainment could also be commerce.
Spielberg’s gift for efficient storytelling and quick characterization makes this material work better than it might have with a lesser director, but only near its very end does the movie begin to slow down enough for the filmmaker to explore the emotional implications of what’s going on. Most of the movie is an action frenzy, with Spielberg failing to prove that the gifts he demonstrated as one of the greatest adventure directors in film history have evolved to accommodate today’s CGI cinemascape.
The biggest elephant in the room, though, isn’t Avatar or The Matrix: it’s Gamergate, the hateful coalition of digital denizens who want to keep gaming culture straight, male, and white. The story doesn’t stump for that cause, but it doesn’t really challenge it, either: Parzival’s online crush Art3mis, after some wince-worthy no-homo speculations about her true identity, turns out to be the very pretty (and, um, also white) Olivia Cooke, whose starring role is ultimately downgraded to congratulating Wade with a canoodle.
How did Tina Turner put it, back in Halliday’s favorite decade? Oh yeah: we don’t need another hero. Not one like this.