Based off the 2011 novel by Ernest Kline, who has co-wrote this feature along with Zak Penn, Ready Player One’s ultimate message is positive. The virtual reality world that is the Oasis is indeed an incredible escape from the bleak reality of the true world in which our cast live in, 2040s Columbus, Ohio. It’s quite clearly an allegory not only for the potential future of our species in this century but for the present itself. We live in a time of aggressive uncertainty and fear, relating to our political and religious stances. We would rather have these problems resolved efficiently and correctly or to escape it entirely. Ready Player One suggests we choose the latter and will suffer for it.
Like the author’s first name, Spielberg’s cinematic take on the novel is truly earnest. The Oasis is intoxicating especially for a pop culture geek like me and motion sickness concerns aside, it would be all too easy for me to be suckered into its grasp. Wade Watts/ Parzival ( avatar title) , our protagonist, is the every-man or perhaps every-teen archetype who has a clear grasp on popular culture know-how, with a particular obsession with the 1980s. He has a virtual Back to the Future DeLorean car and Buckaroo Banzai fashion to show off in the virtual world. He represents an interesting problem that RPO has: it wants to be a tribute to old fashioned storytelling from years past in its structure while also being a potent commentary on nostalgia from the past couple of decades. The issue comes with the tropes we’ve tried to leave behind or better yet evolve. The visuals and core themes are brilliantly state of the art, the execution is outdated.
During the course of the story, it behaves like a video game story: find three literal plot devices, in this instance keys, to unlock an egg which will give you, like in Willy Wonka, the power to own and control the Oasis, following its creator’s passing. Not a bad idea for a framework, but the warts came in the details. You have a corporate antagonist in Nolan Serranto, who despite being well performed by Ben Mendelsohn, is still the stock CEO boss we’ve grown weary long since before this film. Having a corporate villain is hardly a bad idea, hell, it’s probably more timely than ever in our oligarchic era in Washington. His plan for the Oasis post conquest is very close to the despicable plans for the Internet following the net neutrality repeals.
Yet I wanted more from this villain. By the time the movie is set, it would be extremely unlikely though not impossible for him to be starved of pop culture understanding. If anything, his corporate rise to the top, mixed with a equal knowledge to our protagonist’ Wade in geekdom, would be a dark reflection of the Oasis’ scoreboard mentality. He would obviously have financial desires, no doubt, but he could also have a selfish yet personal desire, having grown up in a nostalgic wave of pop culture like myself to use that corporate control to have the Oasis for himself. The dark side of fandom behind the suit. We don’t get that, instead we get the guy who doesn’t understand the culture except that it makes money, the outsider without understanding nor an interest to understand. Boring. He could be a personification of the creator Halliday’s greatest displeasure in the Oasis being a “one player game”. What could have been.
It doesn’t help that the cast don’t leave much of an impression save for Watts’ best friend Aech, who he has never seen in real life. In the form of what I would call a cybernetic version of the lead orc from the ill-conceived Hobbit trilogy, his hobby to make “custom mods” for the Oasis like iconic vehicles and weapons to use from the mass media are particularly cool. They range from properties like Battlestar Galactica, Spaceballs, Robocop, 2001 and of course, the much promoted Iron Giant himself.
The weakest part of the characterization is the romance between Wade and Samantha/ Artemis, who would’ve been much better off as friends and partners who could have hints of future romance beyond the events of the movie. The jarring spontaneity of Wade’s declaration of love for Artemis is wild and leaves one bewildered more than moved. Had this just been passed off as an understandable crush which is left as it is, then that would be fine. Instead, you can imagine that is not how it goes in the predictable and “old -fashioned” manner. When Disney, who through both Enchanted and Frozen, both deconstructed and politely condemned such a cliche it once proudly displayed, you know something’s off in RPO’s representation.
Problems aside, Spielberg’s visual presentation of Kline’s world is still spot on and it is nearly impossible not to get caught up in the referential fun to be had. Seeing easter eggs and references to hundreds, maybe thousands of properties in a mainstream film is a kind of rush not felt since probably Who Framed Roger Rabbit, though there is quite a discrepancy between the two movies otherwise. It doesn’t encompass or show off everything in the diaspora of media, Disney properties being conspicuously yet understandably absent. This is a Warner Bros. picture, after all. All you’ll get is a nod to the Millennium Falcon. Even still, there is a healthy collection of moments to spot from Overwatch, Halo, Akira, Gundam, slasher films and even the 1950s War of the Worlds.
The best part of the film, that makes it worth a watch, outside of the concept and a amazing sequence involving The Shining, is Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Halliday, the Oasis creator. He’s the one character that seems to have the an emotional and interesting story, a life story which basically explains how a world like the Oasis could successfully be made. A nerdy loner, who wanted a place to escape from the stresses and hangups of the real world, but overtime saw the need for it to be a place for all to revel in. Despite his verbal and behavioral tics, Halliday personifies the best of both worlds as well as the message of compromise that is the film’s strength.
If only the strengths in Rylance’s performance carried over to everything else. Maybe then this would be a seminal, even important feature. Instead, it’s an enjoyable, breezy yet properly mind-blowing ride that hits enough potholes to be problematic, but not so many that nothing is gained from a viewing. It’s at the very least, a love letter that needed more work before prime time.