Midway through Ready Player One, Wade Watts meets Samantha, the girl of his dreams. “Meets” in the flesh, anyway: Parzival, Wade’s digital avatar, has met Samantha’s avatar, Art3mis, multiple times: on the dance floor, in the library, while fleeing from King Kong — they’re quite acquainted. They’re coconspirators, players trying to protect their digital utopia from being overcome by corporate stooges and big money. But this is the first time Wade, played by Tye Sheridan, and Samantha (Olivia Cooke) are meeting in real life, and Samantha is a little nervous about that. In real life, she has a birthmark over her left eye that’s noticeably missing from her pixel-perfect, manic pixie avatar — just as Wade’s Parzival is the tween idol to his average joe. The digital OASIS is where you go to be whoever, or whatever, you want to be: Godzilla, a cat woman, various species of ogre, a distant cousin of Zelda, etc. But the real-life version of you might be rife with imperfection. “I’m not disappointed,” Wade says to Samantha after she pulls her bangs over her birthmark. “You said I might be disappointed, and I’m not.” Awkward on the page, but in the moment, it’s vaguely sweet.
When we got to this line — and it’s definitely a line — at a recent New York screening of Ready Player One, a man behind me said, “Yeah, playa!” Yeah Player One, a hype-man adventure, sounds like a stupendous movie that someone should make, but it doesn’t sound like a Steven Spielberg movie, which is what Ready Player One adamantly, unmistakably, even aggressively, is. Based on the 2011 novel by Ernest Cline, and cowritten by Cline and Zak Penn, this is a Spielberg Movie™ in every way that matters. It’s got the blithe sense of humor and chaotic action that we love; the staging is classical and precise, always telling us where and how to look; the exposition is bubbly and frequently fun; and the digital world-building is a hyperkinetic delight. When I saw the movie at South by Southwest earlier this month, Spielberg introduced it by saying it was a movie — not a film. A popcorn flick, not Oscar bait. Sounds good! So why does Ready Player One, for much of its two-and-a-half-hour run time, still feel like a turkey?
The movie is set in 2045, when much of the world seems to be waste, and the only thing to do, really, is live online, in the OASIS. Wade Watts — so named because his father thought it sounded like the name of a superhero alias, like Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Clark Kent, and, by these rules, dare I say Steven Spielberg — lives in Columbus, Ohio, in what looks like a junkyard that’s been refashioned into urban projects. He’s the ward of an aunt who, in addition to having a talent for picking lame boyfriends, makes Wade sleep on top of a washing machine. No worries, Wade’s got his man cave: a gameplay nook tucked away into a heap of junkyard cars, suped up with a high-tech omnidirectional treadmill and straps that give Wade freedom of movement while he’s scaling tall buildings and leaping over fiery pits in the OASIS. He’s got friends, too, like Aech, a monster-truck-driving warrior type with a knack for fixing things up. Soon, Wade will have a pricey body suit that makes the experience even more tactile.
All this for a game? But of course it’s more than that. “People come to the OASIS for all the things they can do,” Wade tells us in a voice-over. “They stay for the things they can be.” I guess that explains what another character refers to as Wade’s choice of a “There’s Something About Mary hair cut” for Parzival, or the fact that he chooses to drive a DeLorean. You can do or be anything, so why not double down on being a complete dweeb?
Funny, though, that a kid born in 2027 would choose a DeLorean — that he would care that much about the reference, let alone fold it into his own OASIS identity. The founder of the OASIS, a now-dead genius named James Halliday (Mark Rylance), was a Gen Xer, and his pop-culture obsessions apparently set the tone for the entirety of this digital universe and, thus, the movie. Ready Player One makes a game of those obsessions. When he died, Halliday left three hidden keys in the OASIS, to be unlocked after winning a quixotic set of hidden challenges, all of which are dependent on knowing your Halliday history, which means knowing your Gen X pop culture. It’s easy to be obsessed with the guy: Soft-spoken and sweet, his belief was in a digital ecosystem full of games and free of rules, which makes it easy to imagine an alternative version of this story in which Russian bots and racist trolls have taken over, while also making it easy to see why people would fight for control of this space. This is a time in the future when the digital world is treated like a natural resource, worthy of mining. What’s being mined, really, is people’s money. And that’s sort of the endgame: Winning the three keys gives you control over the OASIS, which automatically makes you a trillionaire. But it also gives you a hand in shaping the entirety of the culture. That’s what makes it so dangerous.
No wonder no one wants the tech CEO Nolan Sorrento (a suave, appealingly slick Ben Mendelsohn) or his army of corporate nerds to win: Corporatization is the enemy of freedom. Or something like that. I don’t want to be the mic-dropping goof who points out that Ready Player One is, in fact, the corporate product it seems to be afraid of — that part is obvious. Instead I’ll be the goof who says that the irony of that would probably be more satisfying if this were a less overbearing, dead-horse-kicking movie. It’s Spielberg, though, so the set pieces stick out with flair and good intentions. They’re good distractions. There’s the first challenge, for example, which is a winding, zany race befitting a Hot Wheels commercial, with wrecking balls, run-ins with subway trains, and a pissed-off King Kong whose sole goal is to fuck it up for everybody. There’s a conceptually fun final battle, too — this being a movie as much about movies as it is about gaming — in which the likes of Mechagodzilla and Chucky show up to kick ass, in swirling panoramic shots and with the fast, clean action that Spielberg still has a knack for. There’s also a literal movie within the movie, a startling reconstruction of a horror classic that gets lifted out of context and embedded into Ready Player One like a house on wheels. It’s the most crowd-pleasing set piece in the moment, but even it starts to feel like a one-joke SNL sketch that still has three minutes to commercial.
The movie tries to rationalize murder by saying, “Look, I know it’s murder, OK?” Sorrento, supposedly the bad guy, is bad in a way we can all agree on: He doesn’t know his Ferris Bueller trivia and could sing half his dialogue to the tune of “Money, Money, Money.” Clearly, he doesn’t “get it,” because his worldview is whole corporate, rather than 2 percent or half-and-half, like Spielberg’s. But at least he’s honest? Sorrento’s version of Ready Player One would cut the pretense of needing a Sorrento character; he’d have no qualms about spoon-feeding us the nostalgic riches without needing to gesture toward knowing why that’s cynical. If we’re really going to talk about throwbacks, let’s talk about Spielberg making a crowd-pleasing hit in 2018, which is in itself nostalgic: It’s been a minute. No one knows that better than Spielberg himself, and even he can’t find ways to milk the pleasure from that irony. There’s a movie buried in here somewhere about our desires: why we want digital selves, why we keep anchoring ourselves to the pop cultural past, the role Spielberg’s movies have played in all of that, and on and on. It’s a movie about culture, and about Spielberg’s own hold over it, but it throws so much of its weight behind Iron Giant gags and Van Halen that the smart self-effacing stuff gets lost in a lot of predictable muck.
The subtext of the movie is What Spielberg Hath Wrought, and a better take on all of this would’ve had fun with that idea in the midst of being a fun movie. Spielberg’s maligned early film 1941 opens with a Jaws spoof that’s funnier and more crass than anything here — Spielberg making fun of himself is surprisingly effervescent. Ready Player One, by contrast, is merely a lot of doubling down. With twice as much weight, all the movie can do is plod.
On the other hand, popcorn fare by and large isn’t exciting right now, and by being just fine, Ready Player One feels, in context, pretty good. Whose fault is that? We know Spielberg loves to delight and move us; we maybe underestimate (or forget and forgive) the extent to which he’s willing to bore us. Maybe this movie will prove a convincing reminder of both. Ready Player One is two and a half hours of watching kids be obsessed with the cult of a dead tech genius — like everyone who owns Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. They’re obsessed with the culture of nostalgia, too, and again, they aren’t alone. There’s a glimmer of insight in all of that. Ready Player One may be a movie about the future, but it is damningly a product of our present.