If someone told me that Steven Spielberg would make a movie that prompts chuckles and eye-rolls almost simultaneously, I might’ve chuckled or rolled my eyes. But here I am, torn (for the first time) over what the master himself has recently cooked up. On the one hand, “Ready Player One” is the ultimate ode to escapism and nostalgia, employing some absolutely coked-up camerawork through a virtual reality so densely populated with nerd culture’s most iconic creations. On the other hand, it’s just another dystopian future tale that pits a ragtag group of young adults against a ruthless corporation fighting for total control. Spielberg exceptionally sprinkles in enough nostalgic references that ought to make any and all nerdgasms have their own nerdgasms, but when you look past the fact that everything from the Iron Giant, Freddy Krueger, Hello Kitty, Master Chief, Sonic the Hedgehog, King Kong, and Mechagodzilla all pop up in the same space, the routine narrative and characters make this an exhausting game of “I Spy: Nerd Edition.”
To escape the grim, overpopulated reality of 2045 Earth, there is only the OASIS, a virtual reality world created for education, work, and entertainment purposes. Of course, entertainment and leisure is the main attraction for players, and Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a bright-eyed teen stuck in the slums of Columbus, Ohio, is perhaps the most determined to reach the top of the leaderboard. Wade and numerous other competitors, including Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), CEO of massive video game conglomerate IOI, struggle to complete a series of intellectual challenges left by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the late creator of this labyrinthine dreamland. The winner of Halliday’s quest will receive full ownership of the OASIS. If this sounds even vaguely familiar, you might be thinking “Wade Watts and the VR Factory” would be a more appropriate title.
Alas, “Ready Player One” doesn’t quite nail that feeling of childlike discovery that is rooted so deeply into Roald Dahl’s story, or any other great coming-of-age fantasy. You may feel like a kid in a candy shop, but you’ll probably walk out a little underwhelmed since you didn’t see any new treats to salivate over. This is a problem that stems from plot and thin characterization. Wade, also known as Parzival in the OASIS, fits the mold shared by the likes of Luke Skywalker and Marty McFly (he even drives the famous DeLorean in a dazzling race sequence), but he is ultimately unremarkable, and Sheridan’s performance sadly does little to suggest otherwise. There’s a welcome diversity among the supporting players, though they remain ill-defined throughout. Olivia Cooke is easily the most mature among the younger cast, playing the iron-willed Art3mis with great confidence. Among the veteran cast, Rylance brings a lovable tranquility amidst a never-ending landscape of fire, fury, flashing lights, and fun.
If you go into “Ready Player One” for nothing other than the fun, you will get it. Ignoring the narrative shortcomings is perhaps the best way to enjoy it, but even the spectacle becoming quite taxing within the first act. Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer, goes absolutely bananas with his camera. Epileptic viewers be warned, for there is an awful lot of shots ranging from spinning to shaky, complete with flashing lights, multiple explosions, and countless other dizzying factors that I couldn’t remember if I tried. My eyes nearly checked out during a gravity-defying dance sequence between Parzival and Art3mis. Yet for all its overwhelming visual grandeur, there’s something to admire about it. I sense that Spielberg tried to regress into his younger self and make this film as if he were a kid again. This kind of passion behind the camera is evident, but it’s only so rewarding.
As a child of the 90s, I was not subjected to as much pop culture iconography growing up as were those who lived through the 80s. Therefore, the film’s intertextual game of “I Spy” did not take up most of my enjoyment, save for one particular sequence that every film fan will go crazy for. In the sweetest ten minutes of “Ready Player One,” Spielberg pays tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” and it’s just as cool as it sounds on paper. I dare not spoil exactly what happens in this time, only that it is the perfect encapsulation of the film’s mission to provoke nostalgia. Is is wholly necessary? Not really. Is it ridiculously exciting? You bet. “Ready Player One” is overwhelming to the point of nausea, but it’s also irresistible.