Ready Player One (2018)

Ready Player One credits itself as being based on the 2011 book by Ernest Cline and, in fact, it lovingly retrofits the book’s overstuffed narrative to a visual style that is so overcrowded with nostalgic tentpoles that it asks – practically begs – that you see it twice to take it all in.  Home video will be this movie’s best friend.  But the real template of this movie is the current and apparently never-ending mega-industry of nostalgia.  Once, long ago, we could put on a record, hear a song from years gone by and be transported back to the days of our junior prom.  Now, nostalgia comes in cups and glasses and t-shirts and hats and $400-dollar plastic Mario Brothers statues available at every corner store.  The future of nostalgia, I’m afraid, might look a little like Ready Player One.

Written by Ernest Cline and Zak Penn and directed by nostalgia perennial Steven Spielberg, the is a dystopian nostalgia nightmare, the world of 2045 where mankind has apparently cleared out all sense of good living and let the world rot so that it can engage in a virtual reality world called OASIS.  Our hero is an 18-year-old orphan named Wade Watts (played by Tye Sheridan, so good in 2011’s Mud) who lives in a garbage pile hell-hole, a ghetto of trailers stacked on top of one another and constructed with spit and a promise.

Ignoring the dreariness around him, Wade engages in the virtual reality of OASIS as an escape in which you can be whomever you want as an avatar – his is named Parseval – and pretty much do whatever you want and visit whichever world you want.  You can get involved in a dangerous car race in a DeLorean.  You can save the world.  You can hang out with Batman or play in Jurassic Park.  The sky’s the limit.  Apparently, Wade’s only companions are a group of fellow avatars, friends from other parts of the world that he has never met, like Art3mis, a manga-inspired punk girl played by Olivia Cooke.  He doesn’t even know what any of his friends really look like.

Bowing a nod to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the game’s daffy developer James Halliday (Oscar winner Mark Rylance) has installed an incentive to his virtual world, an Easter egg hidden somewhere inside that will give the lucky player the keys to the entire kingdom.  The key is the object of desire for the very shark-like Nolan Sorrento (Rogue One’s Ben Mendelsohn) the CEO of a rival company who is tricking, and in some cases forcing, several players to find the keys for him.

Ready Player One moves constantly back and forth between the bleak poverty-stricken real world and the beautiful world of the OASIS as the stakes of the cat and mouse came with Sorrento continue to change.  That means that the movie can go wild with its set pieces like a crowded race through a future city involving T-Rex’s and King Kong.  Later there’s a brilliant scavenger hunt inside the Overlook Hotel from The Shining in which Percival, Ar3mus and their friends come face to face with Room 237, the Grady twins and the elevator of blood.  What’s fun is that the movie doesn’t just run through the plot of the movie, but expands it much like a video game.

The set pieces are where the movie comes alive.  Where it falls flat is where it has to wrap up its main plot.  If you know Spielberg’s early work then you can easily spot that he’s being nostalgic about a trope that he used himself in films like Jaws, Poltergeist, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. – the evil institutions that are up to no good.  That’s a trope as old as the hills and it leads the movie down a path in which the nostalgia gets a little too familiar.  The plot itself becomes a rehash of many of the old tropes that we remember from many of the old films that Spielberg was making in the 80s.  The problem is that it doesn’t play with those tropes in a new way.  It becomes so nostalgic that it repeats them rather than bend them in new directions.

Ready Player One is a great visual experience but story-wise it’s something of a missed opportunity.  I said before, nostalgia has become a whole-sale business and it might have been nice if the movie were more upfront about that.  There’s a beat missing at the end of this film, a cautionary message to stop building characters and being nostalgic and work on building a world for yourself outside of video games and pop culture.  There should be some suggestion of moderation, that the past is wonderful place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there