Movie Review: The Memberberry Prison of ‘Ready Player One’
In the world of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, based on the bestselling novel by Ernest Cline, gamers use VR headsets, omnidirectional treadmills, and sensor-embedded bodysuits to enter a Matrix-like arena called OASIS and escape the depressing reality of life in 2045 Columbus, Ohio.
It’s a future that feels all-too real, with gamers virtually living inside a World of Warcraft-like simulation as they accumulate coins and hunt for the mysterious Easter Egg left by OASIS creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) before he died. The Egg, sought by OASIS fanboys along with corporate haters headed by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), grants the finder trillions of dollars and complete control of the OASIS.
That’s better than what Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) has to put up with in the real world of Columbus: he lives with his aunt and her abusive partner in a trailer park so overcrowded the trailers have been stacked atop each other as junkyard skyscrapers.
This is a fascinating vision of the future, and so could be the virtual OASIS world, which after a nifty introductory sequence devloves into the kind of vast, unimaginative landscapes that populate many modern video games.
But Spielberg isn’t interested in creating a vision of the future a la Minority Report, and Zak Penn, adapting the novel by Ernest Cline, isn’t interested in creating a compelling narrative beyond Wade’s quest to find the Egg before Nolan’s corporation does.
Instead, Ready Player One is all about dropping references to 1980s & 90s pop culture nostalgia. For some, this may be comforting. Even fun. For others, it’s like being trapped inside a Hot Topic for two-and-a-half hours, an unironic feature-length assault from South Park’s memberberries.
At one point, an avatar voiced by T.J. Miller even says “hey, remember Tootsie Pops,” a thirtysomething (probably) character referencing an obscure 1980s TV commercial in the year 2045. Of course, he’s not talking to Nolan; he’s addressing the audience directly.
In another scene, Wade’s avatar Parzival is trying to find the right outfit for a date with Art3mis (voiced and later played by Olivia Cooke), an avatar he’s kinda in love with even though she could actually be “a 300-pound man living in his mom’s basement,” avatar friend Aech (Lena Waithe) reminds him.
This is an inherently funny situation that already references movie culture: that old “what do I wear?” scene. The added twist is that Wade can wear anything or be anyone, and may as well show up to his date as James Bond or James Dean, or, in the 80s-infected world of this movie, Ferris Bueller.
But that’s not good enough for Ready Player One, which has Wade instantly change into Peter Weller’s suit from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. You know it’s from Buckaroo Banzai, because it has the badge that says Buckaroo Banzai, and the characters say the name Buckaroo Banzai four times within a minute.
“You can’t wear that Buckaroo Banzai suit!” “But Buckaroo Banzai is my favorite movie!” “Hey, I love your Buckaroo Banzai suit!” “You know Buckaroo Banzai?!”
Unlike 98% of the audience for Ready Player One, I have both seen and enjoyed Buckaroo Banzai, which this movie pays homage to not by embracing its spirit but by repeating the name Buckaroo Banzai over and over again. I don’t even think Peter Weller wears that outfit in the movie; it’s only on the poster.
The rest of this movie follows suit: the DeLorean from Back to the Future. The bike from Akira. King Kong. The Iron Giant. Beetlejuice. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Michael Jackson's Thriller. Madballs. Mortal Kombat. Chucky from Child’s Play. Freddy. Jason. John Hughes. Fast Times. Mechagodzilla. Gundam. And on and on in an unending cycle of references that craft a relentlessly depressing vision of a dystopian future stuck in the pop culture past.
In the best scene in Ready Player One, gamers in the virtual world enter the realm of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. As floating zombies dance through the halls of the Overlook Hotel tossing giant axes at our protagonist’s avatars, a cynic might say this is the second time Spielberg has disgraced Kubrick’s vision after A.I.
But it’s the one time in the movie that Ready Player One doesn’t just drop a name but embrace and explore the thing that it’s referencing. As characters wander the halls and bump into the creepy twins, we can see that Spielberg has had fun recreating the world of The Shining even if he hasn’t done justice to its spirit.
Steven Spielberg is still a great director (as last year’s The Post can attest) and his version of Ready Player One is objectively well-made, a fluid, living-breathing thing often inventively staged and shot (by Janusz Kaminski) and operatically set to Alan Silvestri’s score.
Fans of the novel shouldn’t be anything less than thrilled with this big screen adaptation. Me, I have enough 1980s references in the real world of 2018.
At the end of the movie (spoiler alert), the plucky bootstrapped heroes have defeated the evil mega-corporation and saved the OASIS for all. But really, they’ve sealed their fate inside of a Matrix solely informed by stale 50-year-old pop culture, a terrifying neo-Orwellian fate that finally gives Ready Player One its most depressing reference of all: 1984.