Ready Player One is a beautifully, expensively realized vision of hell. The year is 2045, and the world is an overpopulated wasteland; in Columbus, Ohio, the fastest-growing city on Earth, people live in shipping containers stacked on top of each other. The American dream is a rotting corpse, and instead of hoping for a better life, people while away their days in the OASIS: a virtual-reality realm filled with cartoon avatars of logged-on gamers, where you can do whatever you want as long as you have enough coins (a currency, it seems, that’s largely earned by blowing up other gamers).
Steven Spielberg’s new film is set in two different dystopias, but it’s only intermittently interested in acknowledging that. The first is our real world, which has become far more polluted and overcrowded—both a typical and believable near-future prediction. The second is the OASIS, a dazzling land bound only by the limits of one’s imagination that has somehow ossified around late 20th-century pop-culture artifacts as if they’re religious icons. This is a film that treats an Atari 2600 like it’s the Ark of the Covenant, that turns The Shining’s Overlook Hotel into an inviolate temple, and where lines like “a fanboy can always tell a hater” are barked with sincere zeal.
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.
I could have used more of that winking, absurd visual humor (a specialty of Spielberg’s since time immemorial). But most of Ready Player One’s roomy running time is devoted to its heroes’ progress: There are mysteries to be solved, references to be racked up, and life lessons to be learned in the OASIS. Sheridan is an inescapably dull hero no matter how tricked-out his simulated DeLorean is; a Campbellian journey cannot be accomplished through trivia knowledge alone. Parzival’s sidekicks Art3mis and Aech are far more appealing, but often seem to exist to nudge their pal toward the finish line while he spouts Buckaroo Banzai facts at them.
As the enigmatic Halliday, Rylance is a scream, playing an adored CEO with all the charisma of a stoned supermarket bagger, answering every question with a sigh and a thousand-yard stare. If Spielberg is offering commentary on the perils of idol worship, he’s being pretty acerbic. But Rylance’s spaced-out portrayal of the character feels more like a knowing joke about the minds of artists often being simpler than the grandiose ideas their fans might attribute to them. Halliday created the OASIS, sure, but he’s also prone to musings like, “I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.”
That’s what Ready Player One ends up feeling like: a decent meal with tantalizing hints of something more complex, a Big Mac with Roquefort sprinkled on top. Rather than dig into the mind-boggling, byzantine inner workings of the OASIS, Spielberg spends time with the flashier stuff. He is, even in this later, moodier phase of his career, still an entertainer first and foremost. So log on, tune in, and drop out—after all, there are far worse worlds one could get lost in, and far worse filmmakers to get stuck on a quest with.