In Ready Player One, nostalgia has been transmuted from an easy crutch into a codified way of existence, where people talk about decades-old video games and movies like they’re the building blocks of contemporary life. And within the game, they are, since the OASIS was built by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a bushy-haired, extra-dimensionally awkward coder who designed the VR world around his own interests and obsessions. The allure of this plot setup (based on a novel by Ernest Cline) for Spielberg seems obvious: Here’s a universe inspired by the kind of pop-culture legendaria he had a hand in creating, so why not have fun examining how his legacy has been perverted over the generations?
Though the director occasionally explores this idea, Spielberg too often swerves into the easier territory of serving up genre references and lobbing them into centerfield for a cheering crowd. Godzilla! Akira! The Iron Giant! It’s all part of the phantasmagorical CGI gumbo that Ready Player One throws its heroes Parzival (Tye Sheridan), Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), and Aech (Lena Waithe) into. Those are the characters’ virtual identities within the game, but I might as well use them since 90 percent of the movie is spent in the OASIS, which is rendered in gloriously absurd anime-style graphics.
Like many a video game, at the heart of Ready Player One is a heroic quest, a series of mysteries programmed by Halliday to pop up on the occasion of his death (the film opens five years after he dies, though his virtual self lives on). The first to solve the cryptic puzzles and find the “Easter Egg” gets to inherit the company, which is worth about a half-trillion dollars: a totally logical succession plan for a program that seems to dominate most of public life on Earth. Competing against hardcore fans like Parzival and Art3mis is an evil corporation called IOI, which is run by a fun-hating capitalist stooge named Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, doing his usual sneering-villain thing). His aim is to turn the OASIS into a malware-ridden netherworld of popup ads and tiered memberships.
It’s clear, from the glimpses of the America that Spielberg offers the audience, that the country is beyond saving. So Ready Player One’s heroes instead concentrate on fixing their virtual home, battling IOI to keep it from inheriting the game. The horrible company’s business strategy is utterly Dickensian: IOI forces people into indentured servitude by buying up their cyber-debt and imprisoning them in VR booths until they can work it off. Viewers see these faceless avatars doing grunt work around the OASIS, keeping the cartoon trains running on time for their corporate masters. In one shot, during an action-packed online battle, Spielberg turns his camera onto a real-world sidewalk filled with people running around with their headsets and battling imaginary foes.