Steven Spielberg once threw Indiana Jones under a truck, some velociraptors at a pair of kids, and Robert Shaw into the gaping maw of Jaws. Now, decades later, he’s throwing his audience into some pop culture-drunk circle of Hell. What goes around, comes around... or something. Ready Player One, the famed filmmaker’s lavish adaptation of Ernie Cline’s 2011 novel of the same name, is a mashup of sliced-and-diced references funneled through a downward spiral of immense idiocy, less a movie than it is a morosely mumbled magnification of movement.
Set in a dystopian future where the average citizen’s only distraction from their poverty-stricken existence is a sprawling virtual reality environment called the OASIS, the movie follows nerdy teen Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, better than the material deserves) as he tries to solve an in-game puzzle planted by legendary OASIS founder James Halliday (Mark Rylance, whose interpretation of social awkwardness looks like it came by way of skimming a Wikipedia article).
Whoever first completes three mysterious tasks and gains three fancy keys inside the OASIS will inherit the whole gaming environment and a bunch of cash from the deceased Halliday, whose ghost haunts the whole damn movie like an omnipresent executor of exposition. But don’t worry, because there’s plenty of exposition to go around. So much exposition that it takes Wade almost the entirety of the first act to explain everything in a seemingly endless stream of voice-over.
For such a simple concept, Ready Player One is ever convinced that it needs to tell us more and more and MORE about what’s going on. Those who inhabit the OASIS can tailor their identities through fully customizable avatars and then they can shoot a bunch of other avatars or maybe high five them or maybe gawk at a pretty one, like love interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, joining Sheridan in giving more than her role requires).
There’s an evil corporation, of course, led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, of course), and they’re certainly evil, but also very helpfully dumb, which allows Wade and his pals to leap over various obstacles with relative ease and a stroke of luck or two. And then there are the references, littered so obnoxiously and maniacally that it quickly becomes more compelling to question Spielberg’s headspace than to make an attempt at cataloging the infinite array of images begging to be identified.
The references become Spielberg’s own single player game of one-upmanship. Of 80s slasher movie villains: “I’ll see your Freddy and raise you a Jason!” Then, later: “Now I’ll double down with a hearty dose of Chucky!” (Sorry, Michael Myers, no room for you.) It’s like solitaire for cinematic sadists, at least if solitaire was like poker and poker was played with VHS tapes instead of cards.
Ready Player One still has a story to tell, though, so Wade’s personal adventure weaves through the references as Spielberg tries to ascribe more meaning to the hero’s journey than the overlaying ridiculousness of the entire endeavour will allow. Stakes that resemble something relatable in the real world are fashioned into sentimental slivers waiting to be wedged in between the referential cracks. Unsurprisingly, emotional investment remains at a minimum.
The problem is in both the simplicity of the movie’s low-grade dramatic engine and the specificity with which Spielberg envisions an inevitable love story as the ultimate endgame goal. It’s tough to care, or rather not send oneself into a raging fit, that the boy hero’s ultimate prize is an open opportunity to kiss the pretty-girl-that-likes-him-back-because-she’s-insecure-about-her-facial-birthmark. Sure, the nerdy guy that gets the dream girl just because he’s nice and nerdy is a worshipped trope of 80s cinema, but it’s difficult to defend in a 2018 movie and absolutely impossible to comprehend why a veteran filmmaker like Spielberg would waste his time trotting out this trope again and in this current climate of all things.
But perhaps herein lies the key to understanding the wide-eyed entertainer side of Spielberg or at least its current iteration. Age has made him hopelessly nostalgic and his experience with the fantastical corners of cinematic imagination have caused him to lose his bearings entirely. He’s never been prouder to be a man-child than he is right here, at 71.
Spielberg’s best 80s romps have the distinct feel of being made by an adult who remembered and respected what it meant to be a kid, while also understanding the boundaries of childhood and the eventual need to travel beyond them. In E.T., Elliott and his extra-terrestrial buddy form a life-altering bond, only to tearfully learn that they have to part ways. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones fights triumphantly and charismatically on the right side of history, but the Ark still ends up buried in a warehouse.
That Spielberg is missing from Ready Player One, replaced by the soulless shell of a carnival barker that exists only to pander and patronize. He hoards his pop culture references, which include an extended riff on The Shining so inexplicably awful that it nearly ruins the unexpectedly wonderful Kubrick/Spielberg synergy generated 17 years ago by A.I., treating them as precious treasures that represent the glory of geek passions. He reduces the wonder of adolescent adventures, a screen staple that he helped define for a whole generation, to pixelated rubble.
Having the gall to strip the feisty female lead down to the point where she’s categorized as both damsel in distress and a pair of lips just waiting to be kissed is especially bothersome. Ready Player One’s social conscience is stunned and stunted at best. Even trying to generously take the fast-paced flick at face value means submitting oneself to a load of nerdy nonsense that was, in all cases, better when it was first dreamed up than when it’s mimicked here.
To cap it all off, Spielberg eventually bestows his wisdom upon us in the form of a message that suggests we should all just unplug now and then. Beyond the utter unoriginality of the idea and the lunkheaded execution, this feels particularly rich after the filmmaker just spent 140 very expensive minutes to equate entertainment with a tsunami of online visuals while working overtime to make everyone in the audience significantly stupider.
It's as though he logs off with a wave and a smirk. “Thanks for playing, losers! Enjoy your depleted brain cells!” Well, at least he was right about one thing: it’s time to unplug from this mess. Enjoy the real world, Spielberg says via his perpetually narrating protagonist, because cuddling on the couch with a warm body is actually, believe it or not, better than driving a DeLorean through a city besieged by both a T-Rex and King Kong.
The messaging is curiously contradictory as well. “Come on in and watch my movie about the ultimate experience in escapism, but then leave the theatre thinking about all the things you should be appreciating in the real world instead of indulging in escapism.” Um, thanks? Spielberg wants to have his cinematic cake and eat it too in a more voracious, juvenile way than ever before. The silver screen has rarely felt so lacking in allure, which is either the complete opposite of the point that Spielberg is trying to make or the absolute epitome of it. Truly, it’s tough to say. It probably doesn’t matter. Oh, dearly departed brain cells, I hardly knew ye.