Ready Player One is an epic futuristic blockbuster, but with two feet stuck firmly in the past.
In the world of modern cinema, nostalgia is a powerful tool for filmmakers to utilize. Nostalgia allows audiences to revisit familiar places and meet familiar characters that they have a positive connotation with. It allows filmmakers to tell stories without having to prove to those audiences why they should pay attention. It gives studios confidence in spending big bucks on new films because they know that there is already an established fan base who will pay to see the film in theaters.
Like many new big-budget spectacles, Steven Spielberg’s newest film is one that takes advantage of nostalgia. Actually, that is a bit of an understatement. Ready Player One ups the ante on nostalgia to an entirely new level that we haven’t really seen on screen before. Based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One presents nostalgia as a complete four course meal, not just the dessert. It is a film that exploits the charm of the easter egg to the fullest extent possible. It doesn’t hide its homages and nods to the past, it openly displays and plays off of its fascination in doing so.
Ready Player One takes place in the year 2045. By that time, society has been changed by a virtual reality construct known as The Oasis. The Oasis is all things to everyone. People live their lives online achieving their wildest fantasies, rather than dealing with dilemmas in the real world. Our protagonist is Wade Watts, a kid who lives his entire life trying to become something in the Oasis through his avatar known as Parzival. When the creator of the Oasis, James Halliday, passes away, a contest begins. The player that can first find three keys hidden in the game will win control of the Oasis and inherit Halliday’s vast fortune.
To find the keys, Oasis players must interpret a series of clues and riddles left behind by Halliday. These clues and riddles are related to the man’s own life, and the things from his past that influenced his work. Many of those things are pop culture elements mostly from the 1980’s - movies, novels, video games, and comic books. Not only is it cool to like the same types of things that Halliday loved, but having an obsession over them is necessary to win the game. This is where the nostalgia part comes in. In addition to players partaking in Halliday’s influences, they are able to express their own preferences while inside the Oasis. Players’ looks, vehicles, clothing, weapons, and music are all areas where they can show off the things that have influenced them.
Criticism leveled against the novel has often focused on how much detail the book goes into discussing and fantasizing over these nostalgic elements. Much of the excitement in the book, and indeed the film, is derived from seeing so many well-loved cultural elements fit together into a new story (the word smorgasbord comes to mind). For some people, it was too much - for them, they believed that having a story recall things we think are cool as a way of tugging at our heartstrings doesn’t make the story original on its own regard. It’s cheating. However, as the fascination of pop culture is the primary draw to the novel, the filmmakers had to find a way to make this sort of obsession work on screen.
What they came up with is essentially a compromise. The amount of time that the book spends explaining and discussing elements of pop culture would have been all but impossible to replicate on the big screen, and so the film tones it way down. Ready Player One relies less on the discussion of those elements and more on the depiction of them. Those that recognize what is being referenced will get a kick out of it. Those that aren’t familiar won’t be forced to fantasize over something they might not be interested in. The details of the plot have been reworked such that the challenges that Wade faces in the film are less related to pop culture, and more related to Halliday’s life. Those moments become teaching moments about real life rather than just fantasy. This allows the film to create a better sense of character and humanity compared to the book, while still allowing those who want to partake in the pop culture show window do so.
In my mind, this approach is a win-win for the film. However, to make up for the loss in controversial cultural obsession, Ready Player One feels it necessary to add in some unwelcome cinematic embellishments. Despite the strides that the filmmakers make in adapting from page to screen, the final product fits a mold you’ve already seen before. Listing the tropes here would only serve as a spoiler, so I won’t go through the exercise. I put some of the blame on Spielberg. His experience as director shows through; the film is fluid, exciting, and well-made. However, from a storytelling and movie-watching experience the film takes zero risk. Spielberg has made a career of finding new ways to entertain us with movie magic. In Ready Player One, Spielberg seems to have just rested on his laurels in hoping that the nostalgia factor would be enough.
The acting and special effects were two other areas that left me a bit disappointed, and I think the problem with both of them is related. You see, most of the film takes place inside the virtual universe of The Oasis. Those scenes are completely created in CGI. While the special effects are generally solid from an entertainment perspective, they feel somewhat cartoonish. Seeing the animated characters interact in the virtual world just doesn’t provide the same emotional weight as if they had done so in live action. This unfortunately reduces our connection with the characters, and in doing so negatively impacts our perception of the actors’ performances. I understand that The Oasis is ultimately a video game, and perhaps the filmmakers wanted to establish a contrast with the harsh realities of the real world through the style of animation. However, to me it seems like The Oasis should be just as realistic as reality in order for so many people to want to spend their time there. The suspension of belief doesn’t hold up as well as it needed to.
Ready Player One is an entertaining film for those of us who appreciate warm and fuzzy flashbacks and get a chuckle out of hunting for easter eggs. Unlike the novel, the film also does a decent job in creating an intriguing premise separate from the pop culture worship. However, I can’t help but feel let down by the film’s more pedestrian chassis. I wonder, is the old-fashioned blockbuster approach on purpose? I mean, it would be fitting for the movie version of a nostalgia-fueled book to utilize the very same big picture format of the films it treasures. But at the same time, Ready Player One’s blockbuster by-the-numbers approach is directly at odds with its efforts to push the boundaries of our expectations. The Oasis may be unlimited in potential, but lack of bandwidth can constrain our abilities to access that possibility.