Back in my college days, I read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One – believe it or not – for a class. It was a light, fast-paced read; the kind of book that’s hard to put down and easy to plow through. But despite its fleeting pleasures, the moment I finished I could feel my inner critic starting to wake up. The more thought I gave Ready Player One, the more cynical my attitude towards it became. Could this collection of pop-culture references tacked onto a generic treasure-hunt plot even be called a novel? These doubts grew so quickly that they completely tarnished my previous enjoyment of the book, and soon I felt duped for having bought into it in the first place.
Needless to say, I didn’t go into the adaptation with high expectations. The movie’s plot is essentially the same as that of the novel: in 2045, humanity escapes the dystopian real world by immersing itself in the vast virtual reality playground known as the Oasis. Prior to his death, the Oasis’s founder, pop-culture savant James Halliday (Mark Rylance), hid its controlling stake somewhere within his virtual world, and it’s up to Oasis junkie Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) and his friends to find it.
Credit where credit’s due: the adaptation is a marked improvement on its source material. It spares us the book’s worst moments, including Wade’s theories on the masturbatory habits of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie. And it boasts exactly one great performance thanks to Mark Rylance, who turns the novel’s bland Halliday into a lovable oddball. The Oasis is similarly well-suited to film; it’s a visually pleasing, colorfully realized world, and it’s hard not to fantasize about spending some time there, especially during the movie’s wonder-filled first act. But Ready Player One can’t sustain its initial spectacle, and its cracks begin to show well before the halfway mark.
The moment one puts aside the nostalgia that fuels Ready Player One, the laziness of its plot becomes impossible to ignore. Time and time again, the screenplay writes its heroes into a corner and then rescues them via the implausible stupidity of its villain, Nolan Sorrento (a criminally wasted Ben Mendelsohn). We’re to believe that this man is the self-made head of a massively successful tech conglomerate, yet leaves his most critical password on a post-it note in his poorly-guarded office. Between this nonthreatening antagonist and the divide between VR and the real world, there’s precious little in the way of meaningful stakes. This is never more apparent than in the climactic battle for the Oasis, where the knowledge that every “death” on screen exists only virtually renders the entire sequence dramatically weightless, leaving nothing to sustain its endless running time but flashy CGI and pop-culture shout-outs.
And so we come to the movie’s biggest problem (and selling point): the references themselves. They’re a mixed bag by definition; whether they’ll be seen as charming or cringe-worthy depends entirely on the individual viewer. For example, the audience I saw the movie with got a kick out of an extended detour into the world of The Shining, but I personally couldn’t enjoy it over the sound of Stanley Kubrick rolling in his grave. Neither reaction is wrong, and therein lies the problem. One can’t judge the quality of these moments because they have no artistic value on which to be judged; they’re just references, regardless of how cleverly they may be implemented. And as soon as this becomes clear, the movie (or at least a majority of it) falls apart. Because for all its surface appeal, Ready Player One is nothing more than a glorified work of fanfiction – a handsome, sometimes-engaging work of fanfiction, but fanfiction nonetheless. It may as well have been written by Member Berries, the sentient, nostalgia-driven fruits from South Park. But the greatest tragedy of this movie is that it was directed Steven Spielberg, who once created iconic films but is now content to feebly reference them. To quote a character with whom he may be familiar:
“You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you’re selling it.”
Now that’s a reference this movie could have really used.