If you grew up during the 80s, there is, admittedly, a delight in spotting the pop-cultural references, or Easter eggs, that fill the periphery—in truth, the entire cinematic tapestry—of “Ready Player One.” In a triumph of both the digital animation and copyright licensing departments, director Steven Spielberg stuffs the film with cultural nods to everything from Van Halen and Twisted Sister to Freddy Krueger and The Iron Giant to Joust and Street Fighter.
And there is surely a segment of the film's audience for which the ephemeral pleasure of mere recognition will be satisfying. In fact, it's likely DVD sales will benefit from a contingency of real-life "gunters" (the film's term for those who hunt Easter eggs within the film's virtual gaming world), determined to identify the most references.
For other viewers, however--including, I suspect, Spielberg himself—the perception of the degree to which popular culture has in undated our every waking moment is ambivalent at best. And it's this ambivalence about the role of pop culture in our lives that makes it difficult to view this hero's journey as particularly heroic.
The film opens in Columbus, Ohio, which by 2045 looks a lot like one vast salvage yard. Wade Watts (Ty Sheridan, looking for all the world like a 20-year-old Steven Spielberg) is departing the home he shares with his aunt Alice (Susan Lynch) in The Stacks, a vertical shantytown of travel trailers and shipping containers, criss-crossed at perpendicular angles like a colossal picked-over Jenga structure. As Wade maneuvers down poles and around girders, the camera's vertical pan provides a Rear Window-style glimpse into the lives of his neighbors, all of whom have abandoned this bleak existence for the virtual realm of The Oasis via ubiquitous headsets: an overweight woman in sweats works an in-home stripper pole; a young child living in apparent poverty plays a non-existent piano, his fingers rolling silently over the trailer floor; a mother ignores her offspring as she hops and kicks perilously atop an ottoman. Meanwhile, Pizza Hut drones drop-off pizzas so tenants never have to leave their virtual cocoons.
In any other dystopian scenario, this existence would be the threat. But not so for Spielberg or for author Ernest Cline, who co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn from his 2011 novel of the same name. In this dystopia, the threat to humanity comes from an amoral corporation that wants to control the difital environment in order to add--gasp—advertising.
The Oasis, a virtual reality platform where one's choices for identity and reality are limitless, is the creation of ate tech genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a self-described geek whose social behavior suggests he is on the spectrum. Upon his death, Halliday offered complete control of The Oasis to any player who could collect three keys by winning a series of competitions. Halliday has also left behind a virtual library of his life for players to pore through for hints to solving the challenges.
Watts maneuvers The Oasis though alter-ego Parzival, a cross between David Bowie's Goblin King and a member of A Flock of Seagulls, and our first visit with him is the the most impressive--an auto race in the Back to the Future DeLorean through a virtual New York, which has been altered to include Hot Wheels loops, the obligatory swinging wrecking balls, and appearances of both King Kong (Peter Jackson's, not Willis O'Brien's) and Spielberg's own “Jurrassic Park” T-Rex.
Funny thing about virtual reality, though: the more time you spend with it, the less interesting it becomes. And when you aren't actually involved in the action--making decisions, maneuvering obstacles--the excitement drops dramatically, much like watching someone else play a video game.
By the time we venture forth on Parzival's second test (more accurately, "quest" for this Arthurian hero), we're beginning to get more of the same--a mash-up of identifiable 80s-era pop culture references: Buckaroo Banzai, Chucky, Jason, Atari, A-ha, Tab soda, Monty Python, and the initial thrill begins to fade to exhaustion. After a desecration of Kubrick's “The Shining” which reduces it to a sort of Disneyland ride, the final battle, despite hundreds, maybe thousands, of iconic pop culture images, comes off like the nondescript throngs that fill the battlefields of films like “300.”
Watts is given a love interest in tough, Final Girl-type avatar Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and a best friend, the muscle-bound brutish Aech (pronounced "H"). And the film attempts to raise stakes by pitting Parzival against corporate rat Nolan Sorrento (the appropriately sleazy Ben Mendelsohn), who has an army of human players navigating The Oasis 24-7, attempting to accumulate the keys.
Still there's something stubbornly two-dimensional about the proceedings. The plot touches on issues of identity that arise when one can cultivate an electronic persona (certainly relevant in our own developing dystopia), and the film offers some surprising character reveals. Yet time and again, Spielberg sidesteps the sticky philosophical questions for easy answers and jokes.
In fact, although Parzival (SPOILER ALERT) ultimately succeeds in his quest with the help of a Goonies-style band of confederates, Spielberg leaves viewers with a central contradiction. Parzival saves the Oasis only by embracing the same geekish fetishization of the details of Halliday's life that the socially stunted Halliday devoted to pop culture. Yet in the film's final scene, Halliday seems to repudiate his creation.
Leaving one to wonder whether, for all his struggles, Watts has saved the world or condemned it.