In the year 2045, the global economy and environment have headed into collapse. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in Columbus, Ohio, and spends much of his life inside the virtual reality game the OASIS. Wade is a ‘gunter’, a player seeking clues in a contest left by the OASIS’ creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) – the winner of which will become of the owner of the the entire OASIS; and the richest person in the world.
‘You can’t polish a turd,’ goes one notable saying; ‘but you can roll it in glitter,’ says the Hollywood response. Ready Player One is a snug fit for both phrases. Make no mistake: the film definitely qualifies for the first. It is a rather ordinary rehash of well-worn character arcs and plot beats, ones that may act as comfort food for many viewers but will likely bore anybody looking for anything new.
Then there’s the glitter aspect: the overwhelming number of pop culture references compressed into it. The OASIS is a paradise for 1980s and 1990s nostalgists, and the appearances of characters, objects and vehicles from various films, videogames and cartoons form the key selling point of the Ready Player One experience. The references get pretty obscure: I was expecting cameos from Back to the Future and The Iron Giant, but not so much Battletoads or The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. It has to be the single-largest licensing agreement in the history of cinema – at the very least the largest since Spielberg produced Who Framed Roger Rabbit back in 1988.
It is merely glitter, however, and once it is stripped away the remaining film is strikingly ordinary. There is nothing in terms of world-building: we are told in narration by Wade that the global environment and economy are on the verge of collapse, but that is not noticeable or ultimately relevant to the film’s story. Everyone seems to live inside the OASIS, but there is no sense of what anybody does for money or for jobs. No wonder the economy is about to collapse.
Wade and his friends race to win Halliday’s quest against an evil corporation run by the smug Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendehlson). The quest involves three special challenges, each hidden somewhere in the OASIS, and each demanding a separate combination of gaming skill and intimate knowledge of Halliday’s favourite 1980s pop culture. It is all relatively ordinary stuff, save for a relatively inventive and funny sequence in the middle, but it is smothered in so many references and cameos that it feels weirdly busy and crowded.
During the quest Wade behaves like one of the worst people imaginable. He lives with his aunt (Susan Lynch), who loses her savings thanks to a selfish boyfriend. When Wade’s progress in his quest scores him some actual money that could be used to purchase real goods and help his family, he instead spends it on in-game trinkets and better game-playing gear. When he teams up with legendary player Artemis (Olivia Cooke) he soon declares his love for her. When they finally meet one another in real life he is extraordinarily invasive and more than a little creepy. In a post-Weinstein environment it all feels horribly misjudged. What is worse the screenplay (by Zack Penn and original author Ernest Cline) actually has Artemis reciprocate his advances, rewarding what is otherwise an instruction manual on how not to talk to girls.
Wade is a particularly unlikable protagonist. The situation is not helped by the script suffering from “Trinity Syndrome”: the odious cliche in which an ordinary man is dragged into a conflict by a highly-skilled extraordinary woman, and proceeds to overtake her in skill while she becomes a combination of vulnerable sidekick and love interest. (For more information on Trinity Syndrome, just watch The Matrix trilogy, Edge of Tomorrow, Ant-Man, The Lego Movie, or, well, this.)
Steven Spielberg does a fine enough job with the film’s real world scenes – although it’s absolutely minor work for him – but struggles with the CGI-based sequences in the OASIS. It is the same problem that troubled his earlier CGI picture The Adventures of Tintin, in that without physical limits he tends to make camera movements too elaborate and scenes too vividly packed with characters and detail to ever feel fully coherent. To steal from an earlier essay of mine, it all feels a bit like having a seizure in a washing machine full of paint.
To be clear, some sequences work well, and give a fairly enjoyable thrill. Even at Spielberg’s most ordinary – and make no mistake, this is him at his most ordinary – he is still a gifted enough filmmaker to know how to put a scene together. The problem is that there simply isn’t enough quality material, and what else there is in the film remains overplayed, narratively weak and occasionally very slightly repellent.
Now here’s the thing: a fair number of viewers are probably going to love it. Why? The broad male-dominated ‘geek’ culture operates under what we could call a ‘knowledge economy’. Knowledge of pop culture translates to status, and also acts as a gate-keeping strategy to keep the mainstream out. It is a comfort zone, and one’s position within that zone is dictated by one’s immersion in a particular thread of geek culture. Can you name more than 80 Pokemon? Do you know the difference between Super Mario Bros 2 in Japan and the USA? Are you familiar with the Khitomer Accords? Trivia is a currency, and recognition of that trivia becomes pleasurable. For the hardcore enthusiasts, I suspect Ready Player One will be a very different experience to the casual viewer. Each recognition of piece of trivia in the film will validate those geek viewers’ lifestyle and give a little dopamine hit to the brain at the same time. By having Wade in effect save the world through an ability to play videogames, it validates an identity. By having him save the day because he knows all of the trivia about 1980s science fiction cinema and gaming, it presents its audience with a world where the nerdiest and the most obsessive get to win. The nerd is not relegated to comic sidekick status: here the (notably male) nerd saves the world and gets the girl.
The point of this is not to overly criticise geek culture, although I won’t pretend the culture is not riddled with problems. It is worth admitting that I consider myself part of that self-same geek community; I got the same thrill at Mechagodzilla turning up as anybody else. My point is that for a core sub-set of viewers Ready Player One is going to be a genuinely pleasurable movie-going experience. It will speak directly to them in a manner that it will not do for everybody else. I think it’s important to emphasise that for that sub-set they are not wrong to enjoy it. They are, ultimately, exactly for whom Ernest Cline’s novel was written. There is a near-identical argument to be made about the much-mocked Twilight movies, but of course as a franchise aimed at young women Twilight bore more scorn and ridicule than I suspect Ready Player One will ever be forced to endure.
Where does this leave us? I suspect the bottom line is that if you have seen the trailers and advertisements for Ready Player One, and liked what you saw, there is a lot to the film that I think you will enjoy. If, on the other hand, you side-eyed the film’s marketing, or loathed the book, or feel prone to notice problems of sexism, mild institutional racism, weak plotting, sloppy logic, bland character, or how a massively multiplayer game in 2045 obsessed with the 1980s is like an MMO game in 2017 being obsessed with South Pacific and Ben Hur, then it is a fairly safe bet that Ready Player One is not for you.