If Ready Player One turned out to be Steven Spielberg’s last film, it would make for a grand and fitting final curtain call for his brand of escapism. But since he’s following it up with, among other things, yet another Indiana Jones installment, it feels onanistic, the synthesis of a novelist’s own cloistered view of pop culture with the cinematic vocabulary of a filmmaker largely viewed as responsible for ossifying said culture. Ready Player One is the feature-length equivalent of that scene in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element where Milla Jovovich’s character visually shotguns the entire history of humankind in one sitting, only in this case it’s mostly just the Wikipedia pages tagged 1980s and 1990s. But it’s also a boldly attempted strike against the monolithic corporatization of fan service, and arguably one of the few films that defines dystopia as nothing less than a marketplace of trademarked, cross-promotional intellectual property. In other words, our here and now.
Not that Ernest Cline likely envisioned it that way. Written within the last decade and set in the author’s home state of Ohio roughly a quarter-century into the future, Ready Player One’s plot is a wish-fulfillment rehash of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, in which the poorest but most pure-hearted of VR obsessives is pitted against the full forces of crass commercialism in a quest to inherit the factory that manufactures the world’s dreams. The Oasis, as it’s known, is a gamified parallel universe built by the late programming genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance, in a “Weird Al” Yankovic wig), who before he died inserted into it an Easter egg that, should anyone prove able to solve his series of self-obsessed clues, will grant them full ownership of the Oasis.
Wade (Tye Sheridan) is a gifted gamer living in the favela-like “stacks” of Columbus and honing his scrappy skills as his avatar Parzival, a flop-topped cross between The Legend of Zelda’s Link and Marty McFly. Questing alongside some of his best virtual friends—Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao), and Daito (Win Morisaki)—Wade is fighting against an arsenal of virtual competitors subsidized by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), a former lackey at Halliday’s corporation with no aptitude for VR but who, as head of the for-profit prison system cum content farm Innovative Online Industries, is ready to exploit the Oasis for all the prime nontraditional revenue it’s worth. The Slugworth to Wade’s Charlie Bucket, Nolan grimly points out to his board of directors that the human eye can be up to 80 percent dominated by advertising real estate before it triggers seizures—thus reiterating fears over the compulsory ocular enslavement of Spielberg’s Minority Report.
Spielberg instantly plugs into the sugar-rush milieu of the source material, eliding exposition, character, and setting in favor of a quick succession of “Hey, I recognize them” cameos, as though the entire film were cast from a Funko figurine catalog. The first of Halliday’s three challenges is a zero-gravity race through a New York City landscape that keeps twisting itself, Inception-like, into new configurations, with such noted city-under-siege monsters as King Kong and Jurassic Park’s T-Rex attacking competitors. It’s during this race that Parzival, driving Doc Brown’s time-traveling DeLorean (with composer Alan Silvestri’s winking at his own iconic Back to the Future score), first notices the mysterious, cocky, and fanboy-baiting Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who darts her Akira-evoking bike effortlessly between the Batmobile, the monster truck Bigfoot, and Madball decal-covered Mad Max dusters. Velocity aside, Spielberg’s series of racing sequence are as cluttered and disorienting as the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer set pieces were linear and clarified, suggesting Spielberg isn’t as interested in embodying the totality of pop culture here as he is in picking apart how things managed to get so far out of control.
In interviews for Ready Player One, Spielberg has explicitly addressed his choice to avoid making many references to his own work aside from a few fleeting glances, arguing that he didn’t want to be accused of vanity—and this despite giving unusual prominence to the title character from one of the most successful Spielberg knockoffs, Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant. In practice, however, the further Spielberg pushes the material toward an argument against the economics of fandom itself, the more sense it makes that he’d want to remove his own signposts from the overall argument. It’s no coincidence that the most gleefully staged sequence in all of the film, the second Easter egg challenge, inserts the protagonists into a restaging of one of the most cherished horror movies of the Reagan era, simultaneously punishing the characters and besmirching the audience’s fond memories. Spielberg effectively sees the Oasis as a seductive horror show.
On the surface, it’s incongruous that teenagers in 2045 would be so curiously fixated on pop-cultural relics from the ’80s, that Parzival would try to woo Art3mis by wearing Buckaroo Banzai’s suit, and that Ready Player One’s soundtrack should feature such needle drops as Van Halen’s “Jump” and Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” instead of, say, some form of mutant future funk. Unless Spielberg is actually suggesting that the more audiences cling to the touchstones of their formative years, the less likely they are to be able to imagine anything worthwhile for future audiences. That sentiment alone could mark this as the shadiest cinematic subversion of its source material since, well, Stanley Kubrick exorcised the ghosts out of Stephen King’s The Shining and focused on the faults of the author himself.