Steven Spielberg parlayed nostalgia for the pop culture of his youth into blockbusters that won over a new generation. Ernest Cline parlayed nostalgia for the pop culture of his youth into the best-selling 2011 novel Ready Player One. So it's not hard to see why the celebrated filmmaker chose to adapt the novel, which chronicles the efforts of a young gamer (Tye Sheridan) to win a virtual-reality contest that reflects its creator's nostalgia for the pop culture of his youth.
Nostalgia may seem like an odd leitmotif for a frenetic, heavily CG action movie, until you consider that most of Hollywood's remakes and reboots are already trading on the audience's attachment to some formative pop-cultural experience. With its blitzkrieg approach — references fly so fast they barely register — Ready Player One has the opportunity to deliver biting commentary on the tendency to see our past through rose-colored glasses.
And it does, occasionally. Mostly, though, it's more about the 3D glasses, mesmerizing us with kaleidoscopic visual spectacle until the novelty wears off.
One of the most biting moments opens the film, as Spielberg takes us on an aerial tour of the Rust Belt neighborhood that is home to our proletarian hero, Wade. The year is 2045. In this postindustrial hellscape, vertically stacked trailers warehouse people of all ages who live their real lives in a virtual world called OASIS. As they leap and gesticulate in VR gear, never actually getting anywhere, the exuberant strains of Van Halen's "Jump!" offer ironic commentary on the film's reality/fantasy divide.
But Wade has more pressing concerns than irony: He wants to own that divide. The late creator of OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), has left a testament in the form of a tournament: The first person to complete an in-game quest will win his fortune. Victory hinges on an intimate knowledge of Halliday's obsessions, which range from early Atari games to the films of John Hughes.
It's pretty amusing to watch Wade and his hotshot rival/love interest, Art3mis/Samantha (Olivia Cooke), trade quotes from '80s movies with the gravity of medieval scholars citing Plato and Aristotle. The whole conceit seems designed to flatter Generation X, while simultaneously appealing to younger viewers with the breakneck speed and visual flair of dozens of video games in one.
For roughly half of the movie, the alchemy works. As a collage of cultural detritus — where you might meet King Kong, Freddy Krueger or Jack Torrance of The Shining — OASIS is fascinating to watch. The problem is that the film's version of the real world, which should provide a jarring contrast to the fake one, often seems just as shallow.
Wade and Samantha never rise above blandness, and their more interesting sidekicks have to fight for screen time. The film's villain (Ben Mendelsohn), a CEO using his corporate army to game the contest, is goofy and incompetent, just like the authority figures in The Breakfast Club. That may be an aptly retro choice, but it lowers the stakes of the film, which eventually devolves into standard dystopian fighting-the-power action.
Even if he wins, Wade is lost: He may know every line from 60-year-old cult flicks, but he lacks a living culture of his own. Only Rylance's awkward, regretful Halliday grounds the references in real life; as a result, he's the only character we connect to. Ready Player One captures the gee-whiz youthful triumphalism of the Reagan era, all right, but it never explores the deeper question of whether all that is worth rehashing — over and over.