Pop Culture References Crowd a Basic Sci-Fi Adventure in ‘Ready Player One’

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(2018—Director: Steven Spielberg)

—by Renard N. Bansale —

Low ★★★1/2
(out of 5 stars)

“A real Gunter would risk everything to save the Oasis from I.O.I.” “Who said that?” “Me.” — Samantha “Art3mis” Cook (Olivia Cooke) and Wade “Parzival” Watts (Tye Sheridan)

Potential spoilers below

Between late 1992 and 1993, two vastly different film projects stretched the creative limits of director Steven Spielberg. One was the rousing blockbuster Jurassic Park (released in July ‘93), while the other was the deeply personal and emotionally devastating Schindler’s List (released the following December). Any filmmaker would dream to have participated in both the then-new all-time box office champion and the eventual Best Director and Best Picture Oscar winner in the same year.

Twenty-five years later, Spielberg has found himself in a similar situation. The established filmmaker postponed pre-production on another project in early 2017 and dove straight into eventual Best Picture and Best Actress nominee The Post (towards which my opinion has risen a bit since my original mixed-to-positive review). All the while, Spielberg worked with Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) to refine the overwhelming visual effects involved in the movie he had finished shooting in late 2016—Ready Player One, the Zak Penn and Ernest Cline-scripted adaptation of Cline’s 2011 sci-fi novel. The abundant pop culture references, which kept ILM occupied for much of 2017, dazzle the senses and stir the nostalgic sentiments of its viewers, almost enough to distract from the rudimentary sci-fi adventure setup.

It is 2045 and mankind has stretched the Earth to its limits. Luckily, most of humanity’s downtrodden have found solace in the expansive virtual reality universe known as the OASIS, created by eccentric genius James D. Halliday (Mark Rylance). Upon Halliday’s death, he promises to leave his unfathomable fortune and total control of the OASIS to the one who finds the digital “Easter egg” he has hidden somewhere in his invented world. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), whose virtual avatar goes by the name “Parzival”, becomes one of the many “Gunters” (“egg hunters”) eager to locate the prize, hopefully before the conglomerate Innovative Online Industries (I.O.I.) and its power-hungry CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) do. Along with his trusty mechanic friend “Aech” (Lena Waithe), the alluring “Art3mis” (Olivia Cooke), and other fellow players whose identities he has yet to discover, Wade embarks on the treasure hunt of a (virtual) lifetime.

Ready Player One’s virtual OASIS setting came to fruition via the tireless visual effects efforts of ILM, with the guidance of Steven Spielberg’s seasoned direction. ILM and Spielberg land a tricky balance: They achieve a truly expansive environment where “the limits of reality are your own imagination.” At the same time, the virtual world’s texturing just escapes flawlessness to allow audiences to recognize its artificiality. Thus, Ernest Cline’s story provides the rare occasion in effects-driven cinema where video game-quality digital animation looks as it should, rather than coming off as cheap and lazy as it would in any other film.

The reputation and seasoned hand of a director like Steven Spielberg also allows for the easier inclusion of Ready Player One’s pop culture nods. Spielberg has shown in past works like E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Hook, and all those ‘90s cartoons he produced with Warner Bros. (e.g., Animaniacs, Tiny Toon Adventures), that he can strike nostalgic chords in anyone’s inner childhood. Media such as the video game Adventure, the anime franchise Mobile Suit Gundam, and the cult animated hit The Iron Giant feature prominently, as does Spielberg’s tribute to the late acclaimed filmmaker and friend Stanley Kubrick with an abridged dive into The Shining. Copyright owners would have shown greater resistance with a less prestigious filmmaker.

Pop culture knowledge, like that which runs Ernest Cline’s story, can only carry a movie for so long, however. The less one relates to the generous amount of references to other media, the quicker they realize the shoulder-shrugging simplicity of Ready Player One’s sci-fi adventure plot. It does not help that screenwriters Penn and Cline start Wade Watts off with an opening voiceover whose expository content sets audiences behind in their homework more than it envelops them into this new environment. One unwise script choice has Wade introducing antagonist Nolan Sorrento as a “dickweed”, a stereotypical businessman who hungers for financial dominance and wants as little to do personally with the product as possible. We the audience can only view Sorrento as an obvious bad guy with no surprising nuances, and Australian Ben Mendelsohn’s mouthful of an American accent does little to remedy his villain’s lack of complexity. Combined with Tye Sheridan’s Wade spouting both bland exposition as well as cheesy heroic lines, Ready Player One’s main hero-villain dynamic leaves much room for improvement.

Luckily, co-stars Olivia Cooke and Mark Rylance even out the film’s acting imperfections. Cooke has already given one of 2018’s best female lead performances in writer-director Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds and it warms my heart to see her starring in a blockbuster hit as well. Though her and Sheridan’s characters have similar character arc lengths, Cooke emotes Art3mis’ tough exterior and precious inner sensitivity with graceful beauty, even in the thick of combat. Meanwhile, Mark Rylance (in his third Spielberg collaboration) somehow manages to leave a powerful impression in his limited screentime as Halliday. Rylance’s “spaced-out” attitude transforms him into a brilliant child in a grown man’s body, with all the tragedy and pity that that entails. Such by-products inject compelling emotional weight to his scenes and further proves to audiences the worth of Spielberg and Rylance as a director-actor duo.

At this point, one can say that Steven Spielberg fell short of recapturing the critical, commercial, and Oscar success of his 1993 films. The Post, with its two Oscar nominations (compared to eventual Best Picture winner The Shape of Water’s 13 nominations), left the ceremony empty-handed. With just three relatively uneventful weeks until Avengers: Infinity War, Ready Player One will struggle to earn the $440 million worldwide gross it needs just to break even. Spielberg at the helm, not to mention the movie’s numerous references to pop culture and the artistic labor involved in realizing them, should encourage multiple viewings and, one should hope, push Spielberg to continue creating cinema that challenges and entertains more than before.

(Parental Note: Ready Player One has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA “for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity, and language”. It has also been rated 12A by the BBFC for “moderate violence, horror,” and “infrequent strong language”, and rated A-III (Adults and older adolescents) by the Catholic News Service for containing “some intense violence with gore, much stylized mayhem, brief sensuality and partial nudity, one use of profanity, and occasional crude language.”)


About the Author

Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.

For more movie reviews by Renard, click here