Heart, Spectacle, and Much-Needed Introspection Keeps ‘Ready Player One’ From Becoming Lazy Throwback Drab

Ready Player One
Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 2 hours 20 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, and T.J. Miller

I’ll be upfront and admit that I am not a huge Steven Spielberg fan. Aside from his impeccable war films (i.e. Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and Munich), Spielberg’s magic has never really enchanted me the way a Tarantino or a Chris Nolan has. And I have to say the initial trailers for his latest film did not particularly entice me. I’m as turned off by pop culture’s current nostalgia-craze as the next guy, and on the surface, Ready Player One looked to be the film industry’s most shameless nostalgia cash grab yet. But having now seen the film, I have to say, Spielberg does enough right with the film to outweigh any predisposed philosophical grievances going into it.

READY PLAYER ONE
The “OASIS” is a fully immersive virtual reality universe that has all but replaced physical reality

Ready Player One centers around Wade Watts/Parzival (Tye Sheridan), an average-joe-in-the-real-world, prodigal gamer in a fully immersive virtual reality game called “The OASIS.” The film takes off when Wade makes the first breakthrough in the in-game hunt for a special “easter egg” that will grant the player who finds it the vast inheritance of deceased Oasis-creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance), including his ownership of the OASIS itself, and by extension, control of the real world that has become socioeconomic dystopia. Along the way, Wade is accompanied by his (virtual) best friend and fellow “gunter” (presumably short for easter egg hunter) Aech (Lena Waithe), and famous OASIS gunter/political activist by the name of Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). Together, they race to solve Halliday’s three riddles to find the three keys to unlock the three gates to the coveted egg. However, their biggest threat, aside from each other, is Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the CEO of Innovative Online Industries, who has dedicated all of his massive corporation’s resources to claim the egg so that he can monetize the OASIS for financial exploitation.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Ready Player One is how quickly it justifies all the nostalgia porn on display. A lot of people’s complaints with the idea of this film stems from the film’s seemingly using the viewer’s recognition of familiar IPs as its main selling point. Contrary to what the trailers would lead you to think, the overabundance of pop culture references in the form of recognizable characters are merely the logical consequence of their historical popularity with the players themselves, who have chosen and customized their own in-game avatars to be like, if not exactly like, their favorite pop culture characters.

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The Iron Giant is just one of many pop culture icons that makes an appearance in Ready Player One

The film makes a subtle, but meaningful distinction between reverence for pop culture and nostalgic longing, primarily through role of the OASIS in the film world. The socioeconomic importance of the OASIS within the confines of the film is made all the more prevalent when considering the film’s dystopian setting, which as stated by Wade himself is a direct result of “people [having stopped] trying to solve real world problems.” Halliday’s creation, what is in spirit a manifestation of nostalgia itself, has long surpassed its recreational purposes. The OASIS is Halliday’s self-proclaimed escape from his real-world’s difficulties and complexities, an escape so complete and so immersive that the world has essentially abandoned the reality for this virtual substitute, effectively creating the Black Mirror-esque dystopia the characters are now forced to endure.

Nostalgia is a bittersweet phenomenon. On one hand, it’s completely understandable to want to relive a time in your life when maybe things weren’t quite so stressful or complicated. But on the other hand, the consequences of excessive nostalgic indulgence, at the mass cultural scale we see in the film and in part in the real world today, leads to sociopolitical regression and ethical complicity. We may not have a real-life OASIS, but the social/mass media echo-chambers that make up the modern Internet, aren’t too far off in effect.

In the end, Ready Player One is no cinematic masterpiece, but its action is impressive, its heart is big, and most importantly, its got its politics right.

7.5/10

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