The film is so chock-full of nods to the past that it feels less like an action movie and more like a nostalgia delivery system.
[This story contains spoilers for Ready Player One]
If you’re of a certain age, then the experience of Ready Player One will be akin to a full re-immersion in nostalgia from the 1980s and 1990s. The new Steven Spielberg film, an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel, is set in the year 2045 but is all about characters who have chosen to embrace all manner of films, TV shows, video games, music, and more from the ’80s and ’90s. Spielberg, of course, is one of the authors of many of the nostalgic totems that appear in Ready Player One, but his choice to create a film about nostalgia only pays off slightly here.
Ready Player One is not just about the nostalgia created by Spielberg. Though a few of the films he directed or produced show up here in some form or another — the lead character’s virtual-reality vehicle of choice is the DeLorean from Back to the Future, which Spielberg produced, and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park shows up in an early race sequence — many of the references and cultural cameos aren’t Spielberg-specific. One mid-film sequence is a recreation of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining; in the final battle sequence between goodhearted VR gamers and the minions of a cruel corporation, the good guys use all sorts of attack strategies, including a version of the Iron Giant and the killer doll Chucky from Child’s Play.
Ready Player One relies almost entirely on nostalgia, and the audience’s recollection of ’80s music, movies, and more. (When the section focusing on The Shining begins, the soundtrack begins to mirror the creepy synthesizer-heavy score of the Kubrick film, even before we see the inside of the Overlook Hotel, for example.) You may not need to know every reference packed into each shot of the film — the basic struggle depicted in the story, a battle between good and evil in the middle of a futuristic dystopia, is fairly standard-issue — but knowing the references helps. This, in effect, is the issue at the core of Ready Player One; the story is so chock-full of nods to other culture that it feels less like a compelling action story and more of a delivery system to remind the audience about things that happened three decades ago.
The core journey of Ready Player One is a hunt on which the lead characters embark to find three keys to a fabled Easter egg created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the man who created the OASIS, the virtual-reality world in which all of these nostalgic references occur. So too does Ready Player One feel like a feature-length Easter egg, designed as much for audiences to spot the reference, to feel proud for having recognized the quick nods to King Kong, Last Action Hero, old-school Atari games, and more. On one hand, it’s fun on the surface to see all sorts of random pop culture bumping up against each other in a movie directed by one of the all-time great directors. On the other hand, the more the movie serves as a reminder of things that everyone loved (or still love) when they were younger, the more Ready Player One feels like an encouragement to watch those nostalgic things instead. Sure, the DeLorean is great, so why not watch Back to the Future instead? And yes, The Shining is indeed a scary, freaky film…that’s a lot better than a movie quoting it so directly.
Ready Player One isn’t trying to do too much aside from creating a perpetual nostalgia machine. By the end of the film, when the heroes indeed acquire the Easter egg and gain control of the virtual-reality world, there’s a not-entirely-energetic argument to make that spending so much time wallowing in nostalgia is unhealthy. Our lead, Wade Watts, says that he’s decided to close the Oasis two days a week, to let people get out of the house, but this feels like the movie having its cake and eating it too. Almost all of the 140-minute film cheers nostalgia, but then tries to suggest that same cheering is unhealthy. You can’t have it both ways.
Could anyone but Spielberg have made a better version of Ready Player One? It’s highly doubtful; as flawed as the final film is, Spielberg creates some memorable sequences (though that Shining bit is as much thanks to Kubrick as anyone else). It’s knee-deep in nostalgia, bringing together a cavalcade of characters in a technological world where anything is possible. But while it’s somewhat fascinating, in a novelty kind of way, to see Spielberg make a film that’s so directly about nostalgia (instead of his earlier films, which created nostalgia on their own), it doesn’t make Ready Player One a nostalgic totem on its own. Instead of making something new, this movie is too content just reminding people how great other stuff is.