‘Ready Player One’ offers pop culture, reused and in poor condition
Tye Sheridan in “Ready Player One”
Steven Spielberg is the most commercially successful filmmaker in Hollywood history. That the universally acclaimed director responsible for “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List” is also responsible for “Ready Player One,” a mash-up of misfired pop-culture references, is just one of the film’s many confounding elements.
“Ready Player One” adapts a 2011 sci-fi novel whose tropes—like a primarily adolescent capital-R “Rebellion” group—cast it into that dreaded genre of YA dystopia. In the year 2044, most of the population ignores the problems of reality by retreating to Oasis, a digital world where players can adventure, socialize, and get rich. After the game’s designer dies, protagonist Wade Watts and friends battle an evil corporation in a race for control of the game. It’s more or less an excuse to cram a lot of icons into one film.
These references to other movies, music, and games alike are at best momentarily surprising and at worst cringe-inducing, like when the characteristically pacifistic Iron Giant guns down enemies in droves. Worse still, the references within Oasis constitute an identity crisis in “Ready Player One.” The heroes on screen are a hodge-podge of characters Warner Brothers already had the rights to, like Deadshot, classic icons like Godzilla, or cameos that might constitute product placement, like Tracer from “Overwatch.”
If one scene best captures the dilemma of these references, it’s the sequence in which the protagonists—consisting of uniquely uncompelling avatars—navigate the haunted halls of The Overlook Hotel from “The Shining.” Kubrick’s 1980 visuals were carefully replicated, but the scene bastardizes the pacing of the original, serving a slew of horrors in quick succession. I wondered what I was supposed to feel aside from simple image recognition. The twin sisters, the elevator spewing blood, Jack Torrance’s axe splitting through a door—these moments lack any real context and left me apathetic.
It’s worth clarifying that “Ready Player One” is by and by a harmless children’s film—it’s competently made, there are some impressive visuals, and the jokes occasionally work. That said, I’ll note that there wasn’t a single child in my showing’s audience—at least not in biological years.
The majority of people there were probably looking forward to a celebration of nerd culture, and it’s here the film presents a mixed message. “Ready Player One” half-heartedly tries to double as an indictment of it. Mainstream nerd culture has become plagued by brand recognition, forced nostalgia, and an embarrassing enthusiasm to consume media indiscriminately, exemplified in the reaction videos YouTubers upload for popular movie trailers, themselves cheering at any familiar image: a lightsaber, a superhero, a rebooted logo, etc.
“Ready Player One” is at its best when it critiques the corporate minds who cultivate and capitalize on this culture through the fictional telecommunications conglomerate IOI. But more often than not, it’s guilty of the same crime as its antagonists: dangling once-meaningful images and icons to draw in a few fanboys.