It’s unusual to look at a Steven Spielberg movie and feel like it’s not entirely thought out. Such is the unmoored experience of watching Ready Player One, a movie blessed with an incredibly user-friendly concept: in a futuristic dystopia with the real world has gone to hell, people eagerly escape into the virtual online space of The Oasis, where they can exist as their avatars and live and game and play among their favorite pop culture characters. And since it’s also Spielberg and beholden to the rules of the hero’s journey, there is also a quest to find the three secret whatevers that the late creator and founder of the game left for one True Fan to find and Charlie-Bucket his way into owning the entire Oasis.
For as much as the source material, Ernest Cline’s novel, was a divisive lightning rod, this is a concept that could have been so fertile with ways to talk about how we live and interact and game and consume culture in this age. The idea that the whole of popular culture is a series of branded signposts that, if one familiarizes himself enough with them, he can win is absolutely a reflection of the brand-soaked culture in which we live. The notions of gatekeepers and “fake fans” and easter eggs and artists’ intentions and inclusivity could have touched on everything from GamerGate to the advent of streaming movies and all sorts of places in between. That didn’t happen, and Ready Player One, while an engrossing and diverting adventure yarn, never launched beyond those rather humble ambitions into something truly special.
Spielberg sure does know a good hero’s quest, though. So it’s no surprise that following Parzival (Tye Sheridan) and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) on their quest for the three eggs that will bring them closer to James Halliday’s (Mark Rylance) posthumous bequeathment of his entire virtual realm ends up being a diverting and exciting experience. It’s mostly in the empty spaces where the film could have been so much more than it truly disappoints.
That is, except for one deceptively trivial moment that reveals the fatal flaw at the heart of this endeavor. In the film’s final third, as our heroes rally the other players in the Oasis to rise up and help them win, thus defeating the evil President Business or whatever Ben Mendelsohn’s character was called. Lena Waithe, as fellow gamer Aech, loads up her avatar: the Iron Giant. All throughout Parzival’s journey, he’s been partaking of pop culture ephemera in his quest, from the Back to the Future DeLorian to various artifacts from The Shining. The Iron Giant is different, though. Because the Iron Giant isn’t just some killer robot. It’s a creature from space, and while it has all the trappings of the world’s most fearsome weapon — it’s huge, it’s made of metal, it turns into a full-blown weapons system when it is moved to seek vengeance — that’s not what it wants to be.
This is quite simply the entire point of The Iron Giant — besides the point that good boys get sad when their big, metal friends fly off into space to save the world. You don’t have to be an instrument of destruction if you don’t want to. We are not the worst things we are capable of doing. It’s a message that is a huge part of why people love that movie so much.
And so to see Ready Player One so casually dismantle the entire notion of that movie just to harness the coolness factor of riding the Iron Giant into battle like it’s some glorified Star Wars tauntaun is not just some betrayal of a beloved fictional world. It’s a red flag that Spielberg, Cline, and the storytellers at work here aren’t in full control of the story they’re telling. It’s a dead giveaway that the brands in Ready Player One are just fanboy-baiting tchotchkes. And if the whole movie leaves you feeling a bit empty, that’s a good reason why.
Where to stream Ready Player One