Ready Player One comes with a pop-culture pedigree all its own. The hit book from 2011 came at around the right time, as the mid-2010s’ social media-driven influx of nostalgia-based branding, identity and consumer trends made the audience ripe for a science-fiction book that not only celebrated “geek” knowledge but considered it essential to survival and the human experience.
Like anything popular, the book has its share of backlash — “it’s just references,” “it celebrates the emptiness of consumer culture,” etc., etc. They are legitimate criticisms: Movies, games and books that ride the coattails of something popular to soak up a little coinage in its wake are a dime a dozen.
Leave it to to Steven Spielberg to bring heart and levity to a movie full of visuals and moments torn from our collective pop-culture consciousness. Ready Player One is a classic Spielberg adventure through-and-through, packed with likable characters, snidely villains and a fully realized world that manages to awe audiences while saying something about our lives — without cynical side-eyeing.
Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a teenager growing up in mid-2040s Columbus, Ohio. Multiple economic catastrophes have drastically lowered the standards of living worldwide. The only escape for Wade — and the rest of humanity — is OASIS, a virtual-reality video game built by the legendary late designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance in a “holy-shit-how-fun” kind of role).
Because Halliday grew up in the 1980s, the OASIS is largely defined by popular culture from that decade — classic video games, Stanley Kubrick, etc. Kids in Wade’s generation grew up inside OASIS (as we do Youtube, Facebook and the like), so much of his generation’s social aesthetic is borrowed from Halliday’s hand-me-downs.
Besides a social hub, OASIS also hides a central quest: Anorak’s Quest, which requires a gamer to find three hidden Easter Eggs inside OASIS. The winner of this quest will gain control of the OASIS to do with it what they wish. Wade is a Gunter (“Egg Hunter”), meaning he’s made it his life’s mission to memorize everything important to Halliday and solve the central quest so that he can buy his real life out of his impoverished position.
Naturally there’s a corporate baddie who also wants to take control of OASIS. Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) controls a legion of people indebted to his company IOI, all of whom behave as stormtroopers for his nefarious cause. Creating a situation where the stormtroopers aren’t true believers so much as wage slaves is an intriguing sociological shading for this vision of the 2040s, and it actually comes into play a little more vividly than expected.
Wade refuses to “clan up,” which is to say join a group of players under a banner with a shared goal. In fact, Parzival — Wade’s alias inside OASIS — makes it explicit. So naturally Watts learns the importance of friendship, teamwork and life outside of OASIS. Ar3mis (Olivia Cooke), the movie’s manic pixie dream girl, both helps Wade in his quest and works to take revenge on IOI for enslaving her father in one of their factories. Having enjoyed Cooke so much in Thoroughbreds takes the sting off of the functionality of her character here, and she gets a lot of important plot beats, but she’s still defined by Wade in a way that feels retrograde.
Boy wants something. Boy has a group of friends. Corporation wants to ruin the fun. It’s a classic set-up for a movie celebrating a generation defined by those narrative pieces in particular.
Coming off of last year’s solid drama The Post, Ready Player One is Spielberg’s “and for my next trick” movie — so light, so earnest, so simple yet satisfying in its storytelling that he could’ve made it in the 1980s or 1990s. It isn’t just brimming with visual gags harkening back to those days; it speaks with all the filmic language Spielberg regularly employed in an era he largely defined. It isn’t a regression but rather the work of a pure craftsman who knows what a story needs. Ready Player One is full of references, especially video games from the entire breadth of gaming history. It could have rested on its CGI laurels and simply been catnip for gaming fans. Thanks to Spielberg, it’s much more.
The pleasure doesn’t come just from seeing a character re-enact a bit from Terminator 2: Judgment Day and recognizing the moment. It comes from recognizing just what that moment means to each of the characters involved, too. Ready Player One understands and empathizes with the present-day experience of living in our popular culture.
Not a single day goes by that my friends and I don’t personally quote a movie we love or reference memories from playing video games back in high school that feel as real as our first kiss or some real-world misadventure when we were too young to know any better. The reason why video games, social media and forums are so addicting is the same reason why the movie’s characters are addicted to OASIS. The reason why quoting old movies functions as a linguistic shortcut is the same reason why Wade and Art3mis bond romantically over The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.
Popular culture has always created contexts through which people can determine in-groups and out-groups, bonding over shared interests and experiences. The relentlessness of now, the timelessness of so many decades of recorded culture now co-existing simultaneously on the internet for people of all ages to take in, experience, bond over … that’s what Ready Player One understands and conveys so well. Beneath it all? The same basic story told over and over again: protagonist wants something new, pursues it, defeats enemy, achieves it.
Most of the backlash I’ve seen regarding Ready Player One is an upturned lip at the idea of a story that comes across as a “cheap nostalgia cash grab,” which the trailers certainly suggest. Again, legitimate.
The search for unique flavor and the social cache of being the first person to experience something unique — to find something special in a sea of sameness and reiteration — is as much a part of our moment as quoting classic movies, cosplaying or collecting vinyl figures and memorabilia to decorate our living spaces. The film doesn’t go to any lengths to interrogate the relationship between corporate ownership of the properties that Wade and company enjoy; in fact, the depicted world seems to dissociate copyright and fully embrace the idea that once a community takes hold of an idea, image or story, it is no longer the storyteller’s property.
Naturally in our world, for people buying tickets to Ready Player One, we’re all funneling cash into the pockets of mega-corporations like IOI but …I don’t think that’s necessarily a knock against the movie itself. It’s op-ed fodder, but the popular culture surrounding these ideas and stories is real, lived-in, experienced by the audience as a whole, significant to their lives. Every dollar I’ve spent enjoying comics has gone to a faceless corporation (and trickled down into the pockets of artists), but I met my wife through that interest, and that’s just as real. That is a personal connection into which Spielberg so gleefully taps.
You won’t find something “unique” in Ready Player One, but you’ll find something heartfelt and exceptionally entertaining that celebrates the way popular culture brings us together without feeling the need to denigrate it for style points. All the references — the games, the Iron Giant, the second-act haunted house — are window dressing for a classically Spielberg story about found family and taking care of each other.
Maybe that, done so right, is unique in and of itself.