In the broadest sense, Ready Player One puts director Steven Spielberg back in his proverbial lane. Here is the man who basically invented the blockbuster film as we know it some 40 years ago again blending science fiction and adventure in such a way as to maximize its appeal. Spielberg has spent the better part of the last decade making serious historical works - Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, The Post just a few months ago - and while those films have been well regarded, it's hard not to be excited about the guy who made E.T. and Jaws working with the kind of material that he's turned in to a cinematic classic before.
Train your gaze on the film itself, though, and you will find something that is enjoyable but also more than a little off. At my sharpest and most incisive, I might better be able to identify what is not quite right, but, either because of the film itself or my familiarity with the source material, I am struggling to be more prescriptive.
About the source material: Ready Player One is based on a bestselling book by Ernest Cline that is especially of our time. It is set in a quasi-dystopian near future where much of humanity escapes from an oft-grim reality in the OASIS, a limitless-seeming virtual world accessed through a headset and heptic accessories that allow users to feel the OASIS as much as they can see it. Its hero Wade - avatar name Parzival - is a teenager with an encyclopedic knowledge of the OASIS' creator. That creator, James Halliday, was a diminutive nerd who left "Easter Eggs" throughout his creation linked to his favorite pop culture touchstones that, when all unlocked, will convey ownership of the OASIS to the unlocker. Wade, like many other OASIS users, is obsessed with solving the puzzle - with winning the contest that Halliday unveiled upon his death.
The real world of Cline's creation should feel eerily familiar. Immersive technology is a powerful opiate of the masses, providing a distraction from the decay of the real world. The masses - especially the serious contestants in Halliday's challenge - look backward culturally, fixating on the films, TV shows and, especially, arcade video games of his 1980s youth. Our reality - the one defined in part by smartphones that double as appendages and by all manner of remix and reboot and remake - isn't so far removed.
Spielberg, for better and for worse, proves adept at bringing this all to life. The OASIS teems with endless possibility and teeters on the edge of paralyzing sensory overload. It is an immersive, neon-hued logical extension of the Internet, and specifically the social networks, that have become so ingrained in our daily lives. Facebook allows us to pick the most flattering profile picture and craft an online persona that we all know is an idealized version of the real us. The OASIS refines this further - your avatar can give you a much deeper voice or disappear your unfortunate birthmark, and your closest friends will never even know there is another, real you.
Spielberg's real world, meanwhile, is also a logical progression (regression?) of where we are today. Instead of people running in to a telephone pole because they're staring at their phone or every last meal out being Snapped and Instagrammed before it can be enjoyed, the citizens of the OASIS quite literally flail about, totally unaware of their real environs because this virtual one has become so real.
Spielberg, to his credit, milks this for comedic effect without looking down his nose. Given that he's in his 70s, I appreciate that. He puts Tye Sheridan, who plays Wade, in a laser tag-style outfit, suspends him with wires from the ceiling of his dingy, cramped trailer and cuts back to this scene repeatedly to contrast it with the pixel perfection, uncanny valley feel of the OASIS - the only totally unreal place where any of Sheridan's gestures have any meaning. In so doing, he points out, without real judgment, that there is an inverse relationship between how good immersive technology makes you feel and how silly it will make you behave.
He also seems to have retained the ability to tell uncynical, poignant stories about teenagers. The online/offline romance between Wade / Parzival and Samantha / Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) has real heart, as does Parzival's totally online friendship with Aech. Bonds are forged in the crucible of a video game-style quest that suddenly has surprisingly adult-style consequences. There are virtual car chases and stealthy, club rendezvous. In certain moments, it's a very E.T. or The Goonies in a new century vibe.
The thing is, there's another entire movie going on at the same time. Those adult-style consequences come from a corporation that seeks to corrupt the OASIS. The corporation is embodied almost exclusively by Hollywood baddie of the moment Ben Mendelsohn. Unlike in The Goonies or E.T., where the threat to the kids materializes more slowly and well after the protagonists have been well established, Mendelsohn splits screen time with Sheridan and Cooke from the very beginning. Even more distracting are the series of flashbacks to the creation of the OASIS itself, which give us the always-nice opportunity to see Simon Pegg and Mark Rylance, who plays Halliday, but are overbearing in establishing the goal of Wade's quest and in the corrupting influences threatening the original creation.
Put succinctly, there is A LOT going on here. That's interesting given how faithful of an adaptation this is, and how short the book itself is. Spielberg doesn't leave much out, but he probably should have. I got almost everything that was going on, but I've read the book and played arcade games before. One of my overwhelming first impressions was that this is a film that seems unintentionally but perfectly engineered to utterly bewilder Baby Boomers (ironic, given that Spielberg is one).
And that brings about a whole second line of thinking with regard to both the book and the film. Both pieces have an innate sense for the weird space pop culture currently occupies. Technology itself has exploded the parts of our culture that were once the exclusive domain of insular nerds like the one Rylance plays here. Clever, obscure references to hyper-specific things have become their own currency. "Getting" them conveys a sense of belonging, and here is a film chock full of things to get. (For me, catching a few chords from Alan Silvestri's Back to the Future theme certainly provided hits of dopamine.)
The thing is, I'm not sure Spielberg's film does anything with such an understanding of our memetically driven culture. They are just ... there ... and because of the time constraints of a feature-length film, they get far less interrogation than in Cline's book. And so the question becomes does Ready Player One add anything to the artistic conversation or does it just remix it all in a pleasurable but ultimately hollow package.
In this case, I tilt toward the latter, at least where the film is concerned. Which is not to say that this thing can't be done and done well, just that in this case, it's not done with clarity or focus. Look at The Cabin in the Woods, or, heck, Star Wars, if you're looking for pop culture references strung together in a more meaningful way. Look here if you want a vintage Spielberg story too often drowned out by everything else his latest film attempts to accomplish.