Ready Player One is Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, a return to his populist roots and the escapist fantasies for which he is most famous. Based on poet Ernest Cline’s novel of the same name, RPO is a fanboy’s love letter to nostalgia and gatekeeping and now it’s been enshrined by Steven Spielberg himself. Ernest Cline co-wrote the script with Zak Penn, and apparently no one, not even Spielberg, cared enough to challenge his extremely one-dimensional view of people and basic bitch dystopian future. Spielberg is the master of spectacle, so there is plenty of eye-popping action to look at, it’s just so hollow, and the characters so shallow, and the world so unexamined that RPO never gets off the ground. And at a robust two hours and twenty minutes, it loses momentum steadily, the growing disconnect exacerbated by characters you will not give a sh*t about.
The character in chief is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, refugee of the X-Men movies and still waiting to do anything half as interesting as his break-out performance in Mud), a schlumpynobody from “the Stacks”, a kind of trailer park/ghetto in Columbus, Ohio. It’s 2045 and humanity has given up on solving its problems, preferring instead to retreat to the OASIS, a virtual reality playground where you can be anyone and look like anything. Wade, for example, is “Parzival”, a vaguely anime-looking guy whose best friend is the mech-monster “Aech” (Lena Waithe, one of two real sparks in the movie).
The OASIS is complicated by an ongoing game to, essentially, solve puzzles and win control of the OASIS itself since the owner/creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance, the other spark), has passed away. Wade is the biggest nerd, the last one poring over obscure trivia about Halliday’s life, the one with the memory stuffed full of pop culture facts, and it is his obsessive knowledge of Halliday that helps him solve the first puzzle in Halliday’s elaborate Easter egg hunt, where the prize is an ACTUAL EGG. RPO is the opposite of imaginative, it’s a nerd screaming movie trivia at you for two and a half hours and I still can’t believe Spielberg lowered himself to this. (I genuinely believe he did it solely so he could direct the second OASIS challenge sequence, which is set within an extremely famous horror movie.)
It’s not that Wade/Parzival is a bad guy. He isn’t. It’s just that everything about RPO bends over backwards to make Wade the hero even when he doesn’t have to be. Take, for instance, “Art3mis” (Olivia Cooke), another denizen of the OASIS. She is shown to be every bit as clever and capable as Parzival, even winning the second OASIS challenge, and yet she sidesteps her own capability and tells Parzival she “always knew he would be the one to win it”. What? WHY? You’re just as good at the game as he is!
This is RPO’s gatekeeping in effect. Wade is the hero because the hero always looks like Wade. All these movies they talk about, all these references they make—and they make a billion references—they all have something in common: White male heroes. There are no Cynthia Rothrock movies included in the pantheon of references. There’s no Shaft. Alien gets a shout but Ripley? Nope. RPO presupposes what a hero looks like and that is white and male. Sure, Wade’s friends are a diverse set, with Art3mis and Aech joined by Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao), but again, none of them are allowed to be as clever or capable as Wade. It amounts to a diverse group of sidekicks.
Someone—probably Spielberg—sensed the emptiness at the heart of RPO and attempted to inject it with a half-assed message about the value of the “real” and the human need for genuine interaction, but it’s so poorly integrated into the story it barely registers. Like the characters who endlessly spout trivia but no actual thoughts, Ready Player One is all data with no attempt to synthesize that data into any meaningful kind of analysis.
Shut up, hater, it’s just a fun popcorn movie!
Sure, but so is Black Panther, a movie with a lot on its mind. And even a more self-effacing example, like Thor: Ragnarok, can still get in a pointed critique of colonialism. And The Last Jedi makes a much better point about nostalgia and letting go to live in the moment. “It’s just a fun movie” doesn’t really hold up when fun movies have gotten so smart. But that’s the thing about Ready Player One. It’s never been about examining the culture it loves, it’s just about blindly worshipping that culture, even if that culture is toxic.