Nostalgia has long gone from being a fun little side-culture to an unavoidable juggernaut. I don’t hate it per se; in fact I collect vintage video games, partially in the vain hope that I’ll open up a museum dedicated to such one day. I also enjoy a bit of synthwave, and I even think Duran Duran’s Rio album is still worth a listen in this day and age. What I hate is that it often feels like there’s nothing fresh or challenging within the current zeitgeist go with it. Urban Outfitters still peddles Saved By The Bell printed tees to kids who weren’t even born when it aired. Go into the toy section of most department stores and all of a sudden, LCD games are on sale again - even though everyone knows they disappeared because most of them were rubbish (not counting you, Game n’ Watch). In theaters right now, Dwayne Johnson is headlining an action movie based on Rampage - yes, that Rampage - because somehow even obscure arcade games are earning a place in the Hollywood sun. Sure, all these distractions from yesteryear might be fun, but in the midst of jigging merrily down toward this cultural dead-end of revivals and gleeful remembering of things, we’ve overlooked a larger problem - was there a new path along the way to travel back on? Worse still, do we even want go back?
In the age of digital media convenience, art has become redundant and lazy. Ready Player One is just another culmination of this temporal navel-gazing; a plus two-hour film masquerading as a guy yelling, “OLD-SCHOOL TO THE MAX” before pulling a lever that buries you in a deluge of gaming and pop-culture references. It offers no pretense about its insistence on celebrating the stuff of old, and refuses to stop prodding the viewer with unsubtle reminders that everything was cooler Way Back Then™. The fact that it does this largely through the self-obsoleting nature of CG animation is an irony that might also amuse those who’ve grown weary of such shtick. But despite my fury at all of its lazy reference-dropping, there’s still one thing I begrudgingly can’t deny. Ready Player One is an entertaining movie. It still has Steven Spielberg behind it, doing what Steven Spielberg does - spinning up epic tales of young protagonists on grand adventures full of fantasy and charm. I also can’t deny that its understanding of what makes gaming great - that sense of boundless frontiering in a new world, or the breaking of its rules to achieve such - means that it does also resonate with the inner teenager within me. It’s just that these good points frequently have to compete with the drudgery of the movie’s obsessive nostalgia rush - a habitual go-to so irritating that it’s occasionally tempting to ragequit the whole thing entirely.
All the same, it nails its pacing perfectly - probably because there isn’t really much complexity in its plot. It’s essentially a group of friends on one big treasure hunt that happens to have a few riddles to solve - similar to The Goonies, if only in terms of simple device. The riddles don’t take that much to solve - and my goodness, does the film try to have its characters exposit as if they do - but they at least serve as engaging set-pieces to rapidly fire the film onward. What strings these together so tightly is not their ingenuity, but their ability to evoke. Each of the challenges has its solution in the kind of caveats that regular gamers love to revel in - breaking boundaries, unlocking ‘easter eggs’ (in fact the film rightly calls them such) and all that other thinking outside the box stuff that comes with it. It’s never really that profound, and the big moments of breakthrough might leave non-gamers feeling a little ambivalent toward it all. But for the console junkies, such moments are resonant enough to feel worthwhile - and does at least show that the film gets its subject matter as well as its adapted paperback.
Inspiration doesn’t quite present itself in Ready Player One’s characters in the outset, though. The five virtual hotshots stepping up to try and win OASIS creator James Halliday’s coveted prize certainly wouldn’t look out of place in a computer-rendered universe - but they wouldn’t stand out either. There’s your regular Final Fantasy avatar for a main hero, the rebel girl who’s The Best Gamer Around Because She’s Female™, a Warcraft-inspired orc and a couple of forgettable Asian warrior tropes. They’re effective heroes enough, but their real-world counterparts are markedly more interesting. The film’s true compellingness only surfaces when we really get to know the gamers behind Parzival and his kin, and that’s not a coincidence. Building characters into plucky, likeable underdogs has been one of Spielberg’s trump cards when it comes to adventure films, and it’s also one of the few he’s able to channel through all the coin-op cacophony here. That’s not an easy feat either considering the relative drabness of the script - both Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke still have to work to give their characters even a scrap of anti-hero charm. Their antagonists, the heads of all-powerful gaming corporation Innovative Online Industries (IOI) are just as solid if stereotypical, with Ben Mendelsohn providing a suitably menacing villain as its CEO, Nolan Sorrento. There’s good performances from Mark Rylance as OASIS’ out-there visionary Halliday, as well as from Simon Pegg as his former company rival, Ogden Morrow. But ultimately it’s the typically Spielberg-esque chemistry that develops the film’s heroic fivesome - the High Five, as the film calls them - that underpins the film’s entertainment factor. They’re a fun bunch together, and it’s a fun film when they are. At the very least, it provides a nice distraction away from the film’s ceaseless regurgitation of cameo after cameo of pop-culture icons past and present.
Good grief, there are just so many: it’s Wreck-It-Ralph for the 18-35 crowd. BattleToads and Ninja Turtles fight alongside Street Fighter and Overwatch characters in the film’s climactic battle sequence, simply because they can. Said battle is also led by The Iron Giant and a Gundam, against Mecha-Godzilla. The main character gets to drive a DeLorean in a car race, where King Kong is an obstacle. OASIS’ virtual lounges are populated by avatars ranging from Beetlejuice to Sonic the Hedgehog, while Devo energy dome-donning bartenders serve drinks in nightclubs. None of this, you might not be surprised to hear, has much of anything to do with the story. For all of these incessant casual mentions, the only truly clever reference that Ready Player One provides is a middle act involving Parzival and company’s second challenge, which will delight fans of a certain, much-loved horror movie for its usage and incredible CG alone.
In fact, much of Ready Player One’s high-octane action scenes and luscious 3D animation are going to be enough on their own to keep popcorn movie lovers’ attentions. A ham-fisted side-narrative cautioning the importance of staying attached to reality might not. But the biggest flaw in this shallowly engrossing adaptation of Ernest Cline’s homage to practically every successful media asset of the late 20th century is in its temporality. Ten years from now, I’ll certainly still remember the cavalcade of pop culture icons that it uses for cheap pops - I grew up with them, after all. Will I feel the same way about this movie, in an age when VR is both mainstream and producing better graphics than what’s on offer here? The answer is probably not. For all its good intentions and eagerness to espouse on the distractions of the past, Ready Player One ends up being enjoyable escapism solely for the now.