There will be grunts.
Grunts of recognition, that is. If you watch Steven Spielberg’s solidly built sci-fi phantasmagoria Ready Player One in a crowded theater, there will be grunts aplenty, so prepare yourself for them.
You can’t, you won’t — but try.
Every time any beloved or at least recognizable nugget of 1980s popular culture turns up onscreen, one or (likely) more of your fellow audience members will let out a low, pre-verbal phoneme, a glottal unh, to signify that they do, in fact, recognize said nugget and wish to inform those around them of this key development. This grunt, by the way, is a subspecies of the one heard at live theater, whenever a given patron wishes to express their comprehension of, and/or amusement at, some passage of dialogue they find particularly trenchant (that one’s more an amused hm!).
The dialogue in Ready Player One doesn’t exactly rise to the level of trenchancy (“Dude, she’s hacking your heart to get access to your brain!”), but then, it doesn’t try to. All it wants to do is provide visual spectacle, laced with a high-enough dose of toxic nostalgia to prove intoxicating but not fatal. It does this. It does this … just a lot.
Spielberg inundates every frame — saturates it, really — with characters, vehicles, weapons and consumer products from a specific era in American popular culture. And then, as in the Ernest Cline YA novel from which it has been (freely) adapted, he grafts all of those grunt-inducing references onto an old-school RPG plotline. The result feels like he took a Saturday marathon of VH1’s I Love the ’80s, carefully excised Michael Ian Black, and added fetch quests.
The story: It’s 2045, and Earth has gone full-bore dystopic — global warming, rampant poverty, widespread starvation (we learn of something called The Corn Syrup Riots, which is a nice touch). Wade (Tye Sheridan) lives in a neighborhood called “The Stacks” — a series of mobile homes piled atop one another, which makes for one of the more arresting visual elements in a film thick with them. Like most of the population, Wade regularly escapes the hardships of life by entering a massive virtual reality called OASIS.
OASIS was created by an eccentric, nerdy, trillionaire man-boy (Mark Rylance) who stuffed it with elements of the culture that obsessed him. (His ideal afternoon, we learn: “Drinking Tab! Playing Robotron! Listening to Duran Duran!”) Upon his death, he Wonkas himself up a contest — find the clues he left hidden throughout OASIS to secure three keys, solve his final puzzle and win control of the entire virtual reality system.
Wade, in the form of his wispy avatar Parzifal, is hot on the chase for clues, competing against other players like Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech, played by an actor whose identity the film saves for a second-act reveal. The villain of the piece is Ben Mendelsohn, between gigs as the villainous Krennic in 2016’s Rogue One and the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham in the upcoming Robin Hood. Mendelsohn, who’s having some fun filling out one of Spielberg’s favorite archetypes, the Craven Corporate Bad Guy, heads an evil company that’s also vying for control of OASIS by throwing waves of what are effectively slaves at the system’s every, hopelessly nerdy, puzzle.
Look, Spielberg is Spielberg, and it’s gratifying to see him return, after so many years as Elder Statesman of Sober-Minded Movies You And Your Parents Can Agree About Over Thanksgiving Dinner, to his old, pull-out-the-stops approach to cinema-as-thrill-ride. This thing looks great: A physics-defying street race in which the Back to the Future DeLorean squares off against, among other vehicles, Akira’s motorcycle, while trying (and gloriously failing) to avoid the Jurassic Park T. Rex and King Freaking Kong? Sure. A nightclub featuring zero-gravity dancing? Yes please. An extended sequence that replaces the book’s detour into the infamously deadly Dungeons & Dragons module Tomb of Horrors (which would induce those grunts of recognition from only a tiny subset of the film’s worldwide audience) with an interlude at one of horror cinema’s most universally recognized locations? I will take half a dozen, please.
And Spielberg improves on the book by encouraging Sheridan, as Wade, to double-down on the character’s halting beta-maleness — he’s a soft boy who responds powerfully to the hardness of Cooke’s performance as Art3mis. She’s no Manic Pixie Dream Girl, thankfully, but she is only the latest of a growing number of similarly broad, similarly idealized female characters — the Flinty Badass Dream Girl? — to turn up in recent movies. That’s … akin to progress, I suppose. Progress-adjacent.
Again and again, the movie’s setting — and Spielberg’s practiced craftsmanship — help turn some of its manifold potential bugs into features. The plot is thin and predictable? Well, sure — but the book and the movie are deliberately built on an old-school, objective-driven, quest-puzzle infrastructure, so whaddyagonnado? CGI technology still hasn’t crossed the Uncanny Valley that separates animation from flesh-and-blood performers? No problem — the film builds that very uncanniness into the world of OASIS, setting up its entire narrative basecamp right in the valley’s darkest, bottom-most trough. As a result, the OASIS stuff looks not so much artificial as stylized.
Most importantly, however, Spielberg openly acknowledges something the book kept on a low simmer. The entire premise of Ready Player One — the notion that in 2045, the world remains besotted with the popular culture of the 1980s — is, more than anything, hopelessly sad. As the movie progresses, and the geek-culture shoutouts pile up, and Spielberg’s milkshake brings all the I.P.s to the yard, the sheer, terrible psychic weight of it all starts to press down.
Both the film and the book feel like the wish-dream of some Sad Dad who keeps forcing his children to consume the pop culture of his own childhood. (“You know what it turns out little Bryden just loves? Is Captain Planet!”)
(NOTE: Little Bryden does not, in fact, love Captain Planet.)
Spielberg appreciates this, or seems to, and doesn’t simply celebrate and glorify the film’s reliance on nerdy references — he pokes gentle fun at it as well. And he allows Rylance, as OASIS’ creator, to give a mannered performance that serves to underscore the emptiness of a life spent mired in nostalgia’s toxic sludge.
On the surface, Spielberg has made a straight-ahead sci-fi blockbuster that delivers the kind of visual thrills we haven’t seen from him in years.
But existentially, Ready Player One is a horror film.