Ernest Cline’s 2011 book Ready Player One is a masturbatorial fanboy fantasy, the result of Cline accumulating decades of pop culture knowledge, who them decided to haphazardly chuck it all into a book without any wit, intelligence, or semblance of excitement. Ready Player One is a mishmash of references where Cline can brag about what he knows, while his audience can wax nostalgic on the media that informed their childhood.
When the film of Ready Player One was announced, the choice of Steven Spielberg as director seemed like it could be a gift or it could be a curse. On the cons side, Spielberg could fall into a reference-laden story – like Cline’s book – that could also be equally self-indulgent for the iconic director. For sure, Spielberg was one of the filmmakers that Cline clearly adored and his films are referenced themselves throughout Cline’s novel. But on the other hand, Spielberg has made a career harnessing nostalgia, creating some of the most quintessential films on the idea. From Indiana Jones’ harkening back to the days of serialized action films, to last year’s The Post – which fondly remembered the era when journalistic integrity and roll-up-your-sleeves work could make a difference in the world – Spielberg adores looking at the past. Under the guidance of Spielberg and co-screenwriter Zac Penn (along with Cline himself), Ready Player One retrofits Cline’s original book into a loving look at the entertainment we consume, without ever drowning in the inherent nostalgia, and fixing many of the problems the original story had. But not all of them.
Ready Player One tells the story of two worlds. In 2044, Earth has become a gross, bland wasteland that people would rather escape than experience. To help them get away from their world, society plugs into the OASIS, a virtual reality world where anything is possible. Players can take on any persona they want, whether it’s Mortal Kombat’s Goro or Marvin the Martian, whatever you want to be, the OASIS makes dreams reality.
Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a poor kid living with his aunt in Ohio, who daily gets lost in the OASIS as the avatar Parzival. James Halliday (Mark Rylance) is the creator of the OASIS, and when he died, he created a game to search among the games litany of pop culture references to find Easter eggs and keys he had left behind. Whoever finds the Halliday’s clues and keys will be granted ownership of the OASIS. With a dream of getting out of his Ohio trailer park and his virtual friends in toe – Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe) – Parzival/Wade sets out to find the keys and win Halliday’s contest.
Trying to stop Parzival and his friends is the CEO of the IOI corporation Noah Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), whose evil goal is to take control of the OASIS so he can maximize pop-up ads. Sorrento’s character is key to the problems from Cline’s book that still remain in Spielberg’s adaptation. One of Sorrento’s most distinguishing villainous features is that he just doesn’t know pop culture. As a man who has to be told facts about John Hughes films, he is seen as a “hater,” and ruining the mostly ad-free world of OASIS would ruin the beauty of people losing their lives in a virtual world.
Like Cline’s book, Ready Player One doesn’t understand that people aren’t the pop culture they consume. That entertainment can inform who a person becomes, yes, but that knowledge shouldn’t be the defining factor of someone’s worth. This is especially true in the case of Halliday, played with an embarrassing nerdiness by Rylance. His adventure takes the players through some of his biggest regrets in life, like losing his best friend, and not taking a chance the one time he almost kissed a girl. At least Ready Player One makes the point that living solely in virtual worlds isn’t the right way to live, but it still praises Halliday as a hero to admire, not a barely functioning manchild that couldn’t escape his world of media.
Credit to Spielberg and Penn, as they do attempt to show both sides of being buried by your own entertainment. Spielberg attempts to show that entertainment can be handled in moderation and admiration is better than obsession – a message that Cline’s book never even broached. Gone is Watts’ desire to reference every movie, video game and media that he has consumed in his life, and instead Spielberg makes the constant references a wave that washes over the audience, making the pop culture touchstones almost irrelevant. In the end, Ready Player One’s usage of known characters surprisingly doesn’t become overwhelming, about as intrusive as Wreck-It Ralph, The Cabin in the Woods, or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Knowing the references isn’t essential, but the film will be slightly more entertaining due to them.
Again, the constant reliance on pop culture in Cline’s book crippled the great ideas underneath, but Spielberg and Penn makes these reference points strengths rather than weaknesses. Each of Halliday’s clues rely not only on a personal memory, but on a piece of entertainment that can visualize that idea. It’s a nice trick that shows Spielberg’s gift at embracing nostalgia in an effort to enlighten the present.
These reference points allow Spielberg to go wild in a way that we haven’t seen in him on this level in decades, with the aid of his usual cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, creating one of the most visually unique films he’s made since possibly A.I. Especially in one set piece, in which Wade and his crew must enter a classic film, Spielberg brilliantly turns an extended reference into a phenomenal set piece. It’s in these moments where the audience can see Spielberg as the crowd pleaser that made him one of the most beloved directors of all time.
Thankfully, Ready Player One doesn’t become engulfed with its own references and takes a more balanced look at increased entertainment intake. The story still remains silly, and the virtual world can often look comical. Plus a person’s pop culture knowledge still seems to outweigh anything else about a person to a troubling degree. Yet for all the flash and ridiculousness of Ready Player One, Spielberg’s adaptation is a solid step up from Cline’s story, repairing its biggest flaws and embracing nostalgia in just the right ways to make one of Spielberg’s finest blockbusters in years.