Spielberg’s spectacular ode to pop culture’s glorious past
Ready Player One
Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cook, Mark Rylance & Ben Mendelsohn
Directed by Steven Spielberg
On your mark, get set, geek out!
The race is on, from the opening scene, in director Steven Spielberg’s deliriously dazzling cinema sonnet to pop culture and everyone who loves it.
Based on the award-winning 2011 sci-fi novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One is about a teenager, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), living in a bleak pile of mobile homes—“The Stacks”—in Columbus, Ohio, in 2045. Like most everyone else in the dystopian times, Wade spends his days strapped to a virtual-reality headset and escaping—as his avatar, Parzival—into the sprawling game called Oasis, a dream-like theme park for the senses where anything is possible.
In Oasis, you can be anything or anyone, do anything, go anywhere. As Wade points out, you can climb Mt. Everest with Batman, ski the pyramids, or race the virtual streets of Manhattan in the DeLorean from Back to the Future while dodging King Kong and the T.rex from Jurassic Park.
The Oasis is great fun, but Wade’s in it for more: He’s looking for the three Easter-egg clues left behind by the game’s late, great creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a gamer guru who promised that whoever finds them all will win it all—the trillion-dollar rights to his Oasis kingdom.
He’s joined by a dashing, pixie-like female gamer, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, who starred in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), who has her own reason for wanting to win the game. Lena Waithe, who played Denise on TV’s Master of None, provides the voice of Aech, pronounced “H,” a hulking, gentle-giant warrior avatar and Parzival’s best friend in Oasis.
But a scheming corporate weasel, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), wants control of the Oasis, too—to take it over, charge people to play and turn it into a massive income stream with virtual advertising. And he’ll do anything to get it. When it looks like Wade/Parzival is making headway finding the eggs, Sorrento calls in his army and his orc-like hit-man, I-R0K (comedian T.J. Miller, who gets some of the movie’s best laugh lines) to stop him.
The movie is a spectacular, geek-centric explosion of fanboy references to classic films, videogames, music and props, mostly from the late 1970s and ’80s. There’s the Iron Giant… and the creature from Alien… I spy a Devo hat! Hey, isn’t that the space pod from 2001: A Space Odyssey? And the winged Winnebago Chieftain camper from Spaceballs? Didn’t I just see Tomb Raider’s Laura Croft at the bar? And Harley Quinn and The Joker? And there’s the devil doll Chucky!
Tunes from Joan Jett, Van Halen, Blondie, the Bee Gees and Tears for Fears cue up at just the right moments to synch with something happening onscreen; Atari gets a particular shout-out; and an iconic 1980s horror movie becomes the sprawling, surprising extended centerpiece for one of the Easter egg clues.
There are so many things jam-packed on screen, so many times, there’s no way you can absorb everything, especially in one viewing. And if you didn’t watch a lot of movies, and play a lot of videogames—like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Joust and Gundam—in the 1980s, well, just sit back and let it all wash over you anyway, and bask in its roaring river of nearly nonstop pop nostalgia.
Ready Player One is a thrilling treasure hunt, a sensational salute to our not-so-distant pop-culture past and a potent proclamation about the boundless power of imagination—from a director who, not coincidentally, has himself been responsible for creating some of the most stirring movie moments of all time during the past 40 years.
Although it spends most of its time in the Oasis, with its characters’ avatars, Spielberg brings the story—and the message—home when they all meet and interact and get to know each other in the real world. As a director, he’s always known the heart of any story is with characters we care about, who care about each other, who laugh and love and hurt and hug.
Reality may be a pain and drag sometimes, Rylance’s character, Oasis creator Mark Halliday says, “but it’s the only place to get a decent meal.”
That may be true, but the effusive escapism of Ready Player One is the perfect snack—a bountiful, overflowing buffet of just about everything a movie lover would ever want, served up by a superstar director who loves movies just as much as we do.
In theaters March 30, 2018