Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One was a primed-for-SXSW premiere. It’s based on a book written by Austin author Ernie Cline, it stars hometown boy Tye Sheridan, and it’s about virtual reality, one of the golden children of SXSW Interactive. The SXSW crowd was mostly delighted by the world premiere of the film—one of the highest-profile in the festival’s history—which was announced as a surprise headliner for the festival’s Sunday night. But while the film has some winning performances and fun, joyful moments that draw from great films of the past, the final product is a messy morass of references that feels more like junk food than an actual meal. Rather than answering any of the questions it raises, the whole film is coated with sugar.
In both the book and the film, Wade Watts (played by Sheridan) lives most of his life in the virtual video game world The Oasis—as does most everyone else, since VR beats the overcrowded, dirty mess that is the planet in 2045. Wade is one of many gamers who aims to solve a mysterious puzzle created by Oasis founder James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who willed $500,000,000,000 and full ownership of his virtual world to the winner. Together with a gamer named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), on whom he develops a crush, Wade puzzles through Halliday’s beloved pop culture references to beat an evil mega-corporation that seeks to gain control of the virtual world.
It’s a diverting way to spend 144 minutes, and the performances do the heavy lifting: Sheridan exudes the guileless charm of John Cusack in his prime, Cooke is delightful, and Lena Waithe, who plays Wade’s sidekick Aech, is a joy to watch in her big-screen debut. If it sounds like a terrifically fun romp through your own memories of the eighties and nineties, where Duran Duran is the best band that ever existed, Say Anything… is the peak of romance, and Robocop is the greatest hero of them all, you’re absolutely in the target market for Ready Player One.
But the film raises a few important questions without any real interest in providing answers. Chief among them: At what point does revering the past turn into contempt for the future?
There’s a shallowness to a future in which everyone is shaped by one person’s stunted, adolescent idea of what’s cool, or romantic, or heroic. In one scene at a VR nightclub, Wade picks a tune to dance to with Art3mis—”Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees—and everyone agrees that it’s the perfect cornball dance floor jam. All the characters in Ready Player One agree that all of the best stuff came out between, say, 1977 and 1992 (with a few outliers), which is a fairly narrow window, and which leads to another question: If all anybody is interested in is the culture created over one fifteen-year period (which ended more than 50 years before the film begins), is there space for anything new? If everyone is still dancing to “Stayin’ Alive,” is there room for nostalgia for, say, “Uptown Funk,” let alone any song that would have been recorded in the years or months before Ready Player One takes place? Why would anyone create new art when everyone around them is more interested in watching Raiders of the Lost Ark or Batman for the 900th time?
The movie isn’t interested in looking at what pitfalls there might be to that society, but it should be. The movies Ready Player One wears on its sleeve as inspiration aren’t dumb, so it’s fair to demand more from this one, too. Arguing that fans should turn off their brains and enjoy it misses the point of the great films it references. Even movies as lighthearted as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Fast Times at Ridgemont High (both of which get name-checked in Ready Player One) are smart enough to be consistent in their themes, so it’s not asking too much of this movie to do the same.
Early in Ready Player One, Wade declares that in The Oasis, people can be anything, with the only limits being their own imagination, but that’s not exactly true. The limits, it seems, are the imaginations of the people who made the movies, games, comic books, and anime that Halliday (and Cline and Spielberg) adored in the eighties. This occasionally leads to places that could be interesting, if the film cared to explore them. For instance, Wade falls for Art3mis because she’s pretty, and Art3mis falls for Wade because he’s good at video games. He tells her that he loves her on their third encounter. In a world where everyone has spent generations obsessed with romance as it appears in eighties rom-coms, that makes sense: If their imaginations have been defined by John Hughes and Cameron Crowe movies, of course two young people might believe that the fact that they had a meet-cute means they’re in love. But there’s a strong case to be made that that’s a tragedy rather than a cause for celebration, and Ready Player One ardently refuses to make it.
Ready Player One also doesn’t explore the central irony of 2018 Warner Bros. producing a movie about characters fighting against a giant fictional mega-corporation that wants to own their nostalgia. Warner Bros., along with Disney and a handful of other real-world mega-corporations, already own everyone’s nostalgia. Throughout the movie, Warner Bros. uses intellectual property like DC Comics superheroes, Looney Tunes, and The Iron Giant to remind viewers how much they liked that stuff when they were kids. (The Millennium Falcon and other Star Wars references are name-dropped in the movie, but don’t appear, because they belong to Disney.) If the heroes of Ready Player One existed in the real world, their task would be to distribute pirated copies of Ready Player One and try to bring an end to copyright law.
In one pivotal scene of the movie, Wade and his friends unveil the Iron Giant, the title character of the 1999 animated tearjerker of the same name, in which the massive robot learns how to protect and sacrifice from a young boy he befriends. In the climax of Ready Player One, they bring him out as a weapon to use against the amassed army of the evil mega-corporation, where he devastates their opponents. But the whole point of The Iron Giant is that you can choose peace or you can choose war, and the robot chooses the former. He learns, in other words, that he has a soul. Ready Player One, in its flattening of the nuances of the culture it purports to celebrate, does not.