Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Is it possible for a Hollywood blockbuster to look both soulful and soulless, depending on where the light strikes its gleaming surfaces? Ready Player One, based on the bestseller of the same name, is a pandering, crassly commercial victory of intellectual property law that’s also, in its best moments, grand popcorn entertainment, made with skill and wit and even sincerity. One is inclined, perhaps, to blame its shortcomings on its source material. Like Ernest Cline’s divisive geek-courting novel, the film doesn’t offer much of a story or characters, instead spreading out an endless buffet of pop-culture references, flattering the preoccupations and encyclopedic recall of its target audience, staging crowded action scenes like a moving Where’s Waldo? book for freeze-frame fanatics. (It’s the kind of cross-brand crossover event that has one cherished franchise icon literally burst from the torso of another.) And yet it’s been orchestrated, with that characteristic glow of boyish wonder and wizardly talent, by Hollywood’s one-man dream factory, Steven Spielberg, whose involvement guarantees a hell of a lot more than just another brand name for the movie to wear like a badge of honor.

Set in an overpopulated, environmentally depleted 2045, Ready Player One envisions a future when humanity has retreated into a vast digital sandbox: The Oasis, a worldwide VR kingdom that offers not just ’round-the-clock, immersive gameplay, but also the opportunity for total reinvention—think Second Life by way of Comic-Con, with every third user cosplaying as their favorite 1980s hero. It’s a premise rife with satirical possibility; in different hands, this could be a scathing indictment of a generation eager to disconnect from reality and disappear into adolescent obsession. But Cline, working with comic-book-adaptation veteran Zak Penn to translate and spit-polish his story, still sees more wish-fulfillment utopia than Black Mirror dystopia in The Oasis. And it’s clear from the opening scene that Spielberg shares his giddy enthusiasm: As Van Halen’s “Jump” rises triumphantly on the soundtrack, the camera snakes around the vertically stacked trailer homes of a depressed, futuristic Columbus, Ohio, stealing glimpses at the dirt-poor occupants who spend all day every day with a visor strapped over their eyes. If there’s any horror in this single-take tour of the wasteland, it’s buried under multiple coats of gee-whiz earnestness.

Our window into both worlds—the cluttered “real” one and the expansive virtual-reality alternative—is 18-year-old orphan Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who lives a double life as a vaguely elven avatar with frosty, malleable hair and a DeLorean constructed from 1s and 0s. (In the book, Cline made the actual Wade obese, but this is a mega-budget Hollywood movie, so even outside of The Oasis, he looks like a superhero.) The early stretch of Ready Player One drowns in Wade’s expository voice-over, setting up the rules and history of its internet paradise. Cline’s plot, once it lurches to life, is a kind of joystick Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: Before he died, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the hermit-like, socially maladjusted tech genius who created The Oasis, hid an Easter egg somewhere in the circuitry, scattering bread crumbs that lead to its location. Find the egg, and the mogul’s fortune—along with total control of his digital fiefdom—is yours. It’s the ultimate capitalist scavenger hunt!

Photo: Warner Bros.

In truth, there are Easter eggs planted in just about every frame of Ready Player One, which never misses an opportunity to insert a recognizable character (hey, is that Jason Voorhees getting merked during the film’s first-person shooter level?) or toss a sop to the faithful. When Wade first crosses paths with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), the ass-kicking fellow “gunter” (or egg hunter) with whom he becomes infatuated, the pair’s meet cute is predicated on the swapping of favorite pop-culture quotes. Later, the smitten nerd shows up to their first date, at a zero-gravity Dance Dance Revolution nightclub, done up like Buckaroo Banzai. The referentiality is relentless, shameless, and occasionally exhausting.

Yet Spielberg, who’s built blockbusters from the wreckage of his childhood, has a way of finding the ghost in the studio shell—of making the most seemingly cynical cash-grab seem personal. He also remains a technical genius, and rarely one to rest on his laurels, even when sitting at the helm of a movie built entirely from laurels. He throws his back into the daisy-chain spectacle of Ready Player One. The film’s first big set piece is a doozy: a Mad Max-by-way-of-Mario Kart race through faux-Manhattan, souped-up custom vehicles careening wildly through space, every crash causing a mass hemorrhaging of twinkling gold coins. If The Adventures Of Tintin and The BFG suggested that the director’s craftsmanship rarely extends to entirely CGI worlds, this IMAX-scaled spectacle begs to differ: There’s control in its chaos, a spatial coherence and clear perspective governing the busy, high-velocity demolition derby. And when Wade steers around one of the filmmaker’s most iconic creations, the rampaging T. rex, only to run straight into the movie monster to rule them all, it’s as if Spielberg were drawing a straight line across cinema history, connecting his own legacy of crowd-pleasing to a larger one.

At its best, Ready Player One unfolds like unstructured free time for Hollywood’s biggest kid, unleashed in a playground he helped construct, one Amblin entertainment at a time. When Wade gets to try out his trusty “Zemeckis cube,” the music cue is straight from Back To The Future—and indeed, handing composing duties to Alan Silvestri instead of John Williams shows that Spielberg recognizes the precise pop culture era he’s largely riffing on here. He understands, too, his place in the nostalgia industrial complex; just as his Jurassic Park doubled as a metaphor for the whole movie industry, The Oasis refracts the underlying anxiety of throwback culture. Isn’t it a whole different kind of blinkered nostalgia to imagine that the youth of 2045 will still be hung up on “Stayin’ Alive” and Atari and, well, Spielberg movies? It’s not a stretch to see the bespectacled Halliday, who Rylance invests with an affecting Wozniakian introversion, as another of the master director’s onscreen surrogates—a gentle couch potato as obsessed with ’80s touchstones as Spielberg and his film-brat contemporaries were with their own seminal, formative big-screen experiences. As Wade and his friends dive into the digitized memories of this Willy Wonka figure, searching for clues that might lead them to the next key, Ready Player One locates some poignancy in its creators’ desire to reshape the world to their exact interests and specifications.

Photo: Warner Bros.

What the film rarely does is challenge or interrogate the fan culture to which it plays uncritical tribute. Wade and his friends, including a trigger-happy cyborgian alpha nerd whose offline identity the film handles more tastefully than the book did, are possessive gatekeepers, viciously protective of their pop-culture wheelhouse. Meanwhile, the film’s villain, played by Ben Mendelsohn, is a bigwig slimeball who wants to monopolize and monetize The Oasis through excessive pop-up ads. His true crime, though, is that he’s a total noob who doesn’t know his stuff. Ready Player One can’t see the deep, inherent irony of its battle lines, the way it pits an evil corporation—complete with branded, uniformed, Stormtrooper gamers—against kids whose entire identities have been shaped by corporate product. Is Mendelsohn’s heavy really so different than Ready Player One itself, whose whole raison d’être is capitalizing on affection for stuff you liked when you were young?

It’s one of the many contradictions baked into this silly but often-rollicking mashup pastiche of an event movie. Cline and Spielberg want to build to a climactic message about the importance of living life, of not getting sucked into the echo chamber of your own private passions. Is it hypocrisy that their film’s whole existence is predicated on a prospective viewership of fans who have done exactly that? Or does that just make its message well-targeted? By the final hour, a climactic set piece that leaps nimbly between a physical world and a video game battlefield of warring pop culture properties, Ready Player One has inspired nostalgia most plainly for a summer-movie maestro firing on all cylinders. In other words, this may be Spielberg’s most purely enjoyable rollercoaster ride in almost two decades. As for the references, everyone’s bound to get a hit of pleasure from at least one of them. For this writer, that moment arrived during an extended, affectionate, wholly unexpected homage dropped at the end of the second act. Revealing the movie in question would be unfair, but let’s just say this was one instance when the urge to come play with Ready Player One was impossible to resist.

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