‘Ready Player One’ falls victim to nostalgia



Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts in “Ready Player One.”

Maybe I’m getting old. That’s all I could keep thinking while watching “Ready Player One,” Steven Spielberg’s latest film, yet, at a spry 71-years-old, it seems that descriptor doesn’t apply to him. Taking place 27 years in the future, “Ready Player One” is a dystopian version of the future, one where the vast majority of the world’s population has fallen under the spell of OASIS, a virtual reality program designed to fulfill the user’s wildest dreams.

An amalgamation of pop culture from the last several decades, OASIS is engineered to be inoffensive and virtually perfect. When its creator dies, he leaves behind a treasure hunt leading to the OASIS’ total control — a vast economic and cultural resource waiting to be harnessed. (Think if Willy Wonka decided to get into coding instead of confectionery and you’re about halfway there.) The film evokes a classic Spielbergian air in parts, but it ultimately feels pointless — a blind worship of the popular culture that permeates our lives instead of an investigation of its ubiquity.

“Ready Player One” follows protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) as he embarks on a final quest created by the game’s creator (an oddly cast Mark Rylance) to determine who gets control of the OASIS upon his death. Standing in Watts’ way is Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who wants to win control of OASIS for its great economic potential. It’s standard fare from here on out, with the story unfolding in predictable but competently crafted scene after scene of sugary CGI.

References are tossed out casually with the same aplomb that describes a good meal. However, it’s the film’s reliance on these references in lieu of actual narrative and character development, in addition to its seemingly obstinate adherence to their inherent cultural worth, is where the film first runs astray.

Make no mistake, the film is fun sometimes — there’s a certain thrill in watching the confluence of these seemingly disparate intellectual properties, but after the initial shock of seeing so many different things on screen, the references become more of a burden than a boon. There’s a certain hollowness to the film that seeps through the narrative.

The romance between Watts’ and his love interest is rushed and feels completely unearned, even after the film makes some insightful points about the nature of their relationship. The artificiality of it all is a hurdle the film can’t overcome. It tries to use pop culture as a substitute for actually contributing something to that culture, as if winking and grinning at the audience in a sycophantic head-nod is enough of a reason to sweep its poor script and thinly drawn characters aside.

While the film’s action scenes are its strong suit, getting from scene to scene is where the film starts to fall apart. It’s here, in the connective tissue, where the clichéd story rears its head. Jumping from clue to clue, each story beat seems to have been lifted from a better film or book “Ready Player One” is referencing. It’s an unusual problem to have, one that the author thought due deference might avoid, but the result is still bland storytelling.

To his credit, Spielberg finds pieces of a film in here, from the strained relationship Watts’ has with his aunt and her boyfriend or the familial sense of camaraderie Watts’ feels with his online cohorts, but these moments are few and far between. However, it’s the blind worship of the pop culture that the screenwriters so transparently love that leaves the bad taste in my mouth. There’s nothing wrong with loving popular culture, or culture in general — I suffer from this same problem. But, when given the opportunity to ask how that culture operates within the context of our lives, especially in this age of inter-connectivity and social media, it seems like a missed opportunity to just wax on about how “great” it is.

What even determines what makes certain pieces of pop culture “great?” Why did the world latch onto “Stranger Things” and not some other Netflix series? (I assume nostalgia has a starring role to play in this decision.) Nostalgia is a potent drug, one that makes the past seem more powerful and pertinent than it actually is. “Ready Player One” fully taps into this reservoir of strong emotion, (the nice thing about nostalgia in storytelling is that it does the bulk of the emotional heavy lifting for the author without requiring much skill or talent from the author) but it’s ultimately a dangerous and deadly trap. If only “Ready Player One” didn’t fall for it.