Ready Player One- Featured Image

For so many of us, nostalgia is a warm blanket, our favorite clubhouse, and a relentless proving ground where your ability to recall details of pop culture past is currency. In the novel READY PLAYER ONE, writer Ernest Cline took that and literalized it, making nostalgia not just a state of mind but also a digital world, the Oasis.

At times, however, the book could be almost suffocating in its callbacks, seemingly as obsessed as its characters with proving its pop culture bonafides. This checklist approach to influences earned the backlash it received, with many dismissing it as reducing nostalgia to a sort of catalog of geek objects and apparel.

The challenge, therefore, to the film READY PLAYER ONE, directed by Steven Spielberg, is whether or not it can realize the world of the Oasis without succumbing to the same reductive: “Here’s a thing you know! And here’s another thing you know! Neat, right?!”

Ready Player One- Wade reaches through the Oasis
Tye Sheridan reaches for that human connection in READY PLAYER ONE (Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures)

The Idea Behind READY PLAYER ONE

It’s the year 2045, and America still lives but only just; it’s a battered shell of its former innovative self. In The Stacks—a sort of government housing project constructed from trailer homes, cars, and other assorted debris—our protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) wiles away his days in the Oasis as his digital avatar Parzival. In fact, most do, in The Stacks and elsewhere.

As Watts tells us, after the chaos of the 2020s and 30s, Americans are just content to have survived. Rather than change the world around them, they retreat to the virtual one created by Halliday (Mark Rylance). The Oasis is nearly a completely immersive experience where all can participate, but the rich still get the best experiences via their gear. From what we are seen and told virtually (pun not intended), anything is realizable.

Want to skewer Jason in hand-to-hand combat on an alien world? You got it! Feel that need for speed? Race through an obstacle course version of New York City complete with T-Rex and King Kong! What to take that digital special friend out for a night on the town? Strap on your dancing shoes and hit the club!

After Halliday’s death, however, many are fixated on the Oasis for a different reason. Throughout the limitless space, three keys are hidden. Solve clues, beat challenges, and collect all three keys and the Oasis becomes yours. Gunters—citizens searching for the keys—are numerous but dwindling as each year passes without headway. Meanwhile, IOI, America’s new mega-corporation, works tirelessly to seize those keys for themselves. See, IOI has built their market share on monetizing every aspect of the Oasis experience except the game itself. Like any good corporation, they want that last slice of the pie to exploit too.

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The Writing

Zak Penn and Ernest Cline had no easy task in adapting READY PLAYER ONE to the screen. As noted above, the pop culture references are so thick that faithfulness can lead to a slog. Ignore them though, and risk losing the audience that loved the book.

The good news is they threaded the needle. Freed from the need to note and describe each character, object, or location, the script can be more deft and direct with its name drops. They can show you Master Chief or Freddy Krueger on-screen for a blink or five minutes and keep things moving. As a result, figuring out what matters and what is set dressing is a lot easier. You can still get that little charge from recognizing the Battletoads leading a fortress assault without doing a dissertation on them.

Character building is less of a success. By nature of the premise, there is a lot of exposition to foreground off the top. Thus, when the story kicks free of that necessary evil, it wants to move. Who can blame it? As a result, though, personalities aren’t given much time to develop. We like our leads and they are not ciphers. However, they are not quite rich either. We know Samanth/Artemis (Olivia Cooke) takes finding the keys very seriously. We learn Aech (Len Waithe) hates horror movies and is an incredible in-game builder. And so on. But beyond the two layers each character gets, there is not much.

Ready Player One- Oasis Players wander the streets
Olivia Cooke looks upon READY PLAYER ONE’s mighty works and despairs (Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures)

Casting The Leads

Tye Sheridan, so good in films like MUD, JOE, and THE STAFFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, fares fine here. He’s not nearly as engaging as he can be, but he’s better than in his previous sci-fi tentpole effort, X-MEN APOCALYPSE. As the lead and narrator, he is simply charged with too much carrying to get much emotional depth. At the start of the movie, he, as Wade Watts, only wants the keys for his own personal enrichment. By the end, he is doing so as an act of revolution, to keep the Oasis non-corporate. However, beyond Watts’ change in motivation being declared, you won’t notice much difference. At another point, he loses a family member. Save one brief moment of shuffling shock—which he does sell well—Sheridan is given no time to process it in character.

Olivia Cooke, on the other hand, does much with little. This is especially the case if you have been lucky enough to see her in THOROUGHBREDS earlier this month. Going from that purposelessly unemotional, ice cold character to this one, full of warmth and drive, is impressive. Moreover, she has a great voice, making her a great presence in the Oasis as well.

Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) does some surprisingly subtle fun things as a fairly by-the-numbers villain. I especially enjoyed how he peppered his speech with casual slang that suggests he is a canny but overly committed mimic. You can see his disdain for not only his rivals but also anyone who lacks his desire for dominance. Even his avatar expresses that — a more muscled, less gray version of himself with an ever-so-slight Superman vibe. Overall, Sorrento does not want to play at being different, as he gets no joy from that. He only wants to be even more powerful than he already is.

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Casting the Rest of the READY PLAYER ONE Call Sheet

Lena Waithe, best known from the Netflix series MASTER OF NONE is great fun as Wade’s digital best friend and eventual real world ally. Like Cooke, she has strong voice acting skills—albeit through a filter—and her comedic chops elevate the script during the real world scenes.

Sho (Philip Zhao) basically has only one thing to do—comment on people’s surprise at his age—but he kills it every time.

The real delight of the supporting cast for me though was Mark Rylance’s socially awkward tech genius Halliday. He has this rueful, dryly humorous spark with him throughout that makes what could be a cliché magnetic on screen.  Plus, he delivers it through this vaguely Garth from WAYNE’S WORLD voice, making him all the more endearing. It is a part that easily could have been annoying, self-aggrandizing or mere wallpaper; instead, he gives Halliday soul.

Ready Player One- Sorrento at the board
Ben Mendelsohn has no time for frivolity in a scene from READY PLAYER ONE (Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures)

Filming

How can a man who’s basically canonized in the book deliver a movie that does not just feel…well…out of date?

Spielberg does it by not running from the premise. He knowingly deploys past tropes like a scene where everyone applauds while staring at a screen. However, the movie also embraces technology without hesitation. The Oasis is a place of studied chaos. Befitting a place where one can call forth nearly anything, the scenes whirr and whiz with digital objects. Still, there is also never a moment the action is illegible.

Spielberg also plays well to the script’s humor. One moment in particular comes to mind as a van door is repeatedly opened to reveal new people outside of it—a woman looking for a fight, a man with a gun, police, and so on. The scene is almost farcical in the way Spielberg frames it, earning a bigger smile each time until it pulls forth a laugh.

Finally, and most importantly, Spielberg—with help from the script—makes the nostalgia purposeful. As noted, this is a world that has stopped trying to solve problems. Instead, society has retreated into this world of past delights and comforts.

Spielberg is no scold though. He understands the appeal of the past. Therefore, READY PLAYER ONE becomes a story of the double-edged nature of nostalgia and pop culture.

My biggest complaint comes in light of this. We know America has given up in many ways. However, we don’t really get to see the ways that have shaped the world. We only have a hint of what’s been lost. It can feel at times that the film is just as infatuated with the Oasis as its characters. It needs to sell the virtual world’s appeal but it might be too good at it.

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Striking the Set

There is no denying that READY PLAYER ONE is an incredible spectacle. Beautiful, chaotic, and a delight for detail spotters. Without a worthy story though, the film would feel like a masturbatory exercise. Luckily, Spielberg finds the dichotomy at the heart of it: that nostalgia can save and sink us, often at the same time.

On the one hand, nostalgia helps us escape when we need it. It lets us connect with other people whom we might not otherwise. It gives us an appreciation for things that are not just part of what is happening right now.

On the other, nostalgia can be too tempting an escape. It lets us ignore real problems that require solutions. We can rob ourselves of meaningful tangible experiences because the virtual world offers low-risk rushes that approximate but never equal real world successes.

Unfortunately, even the movie sometimes can lose its focus when it becomes overly attached to pop culture artifacts.

Nonetheless, READY PLAYER ONE proves a canny surprise. It is rare that movies triumph over their source material, but this is one such case.

Ready Player One- The High Five minus one strut
The High Five, minus one–Olivia Cooke, Win Morisaki, Lena Waithe, and Philip Zhao–strut it out in READY PLAYER ONE. (Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures)

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