Review: Spielberg toasts greats in ‘Ready Player One’
Gamer adventure chronicles 40 years of pop culture and stands among the classics it mentions
A gloriously geeky ode to the last 40 years of pop culture wrapped up in a thrilling old-school adventure tale, “Ready Player One” is tremendous fun, a just reward for spending way too much of your life camped out in front of your television.
Steven Speilberg directs this exuberant celebration of the movies, video games and hobbies several generations have grown up on, with a Gen-X sweet spot that hits squarely on ’70s kids raised on first-gen Atari games. Know the Easter Egg hidden in “Adventure?” Congratulations, this movie is exactly for you. But for those who just want to romp through an index of pop culture references from A (A-ha) to Z (Robert Zemeckis), “Ready Player One” is for you, as well.
“Ready Player One” — based on the 2011 novel of the same name — rattles off big picture references to “Back to the Future,” “The Iron Giant,” “King Kong,” “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension,” “Batman,” “Alien,” “Child’s Play” and the works of John Hughes, along with one extended homage to a horror classic that is simply too good to give away. There are musical nods to Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, Blondie, Rush, Van Halen and Michael Jackson, for starters.
Look closer and you’ll spot winks to He-Man, “Minecraft,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Star Trek,” Simon (the electronic game), “Knight Rider,” “Goldeneye” (the N64 game), “Friday the 13th,” “There’s Something About Mary,” “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” “Beetlejuice,” “Cocktail,” Garbage Pail Kids, “Mortal Kombat,” “Battletoads,” Madballs and many, many, many more. Since Spielberg is in on the game, he tosses in references to his own “Jurassic Park,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Minority Report,” since they’re part of the tapestry of the movie’s universe. No doubt, scholars will compile lists of “Ready Player One’s” glossary of references for years to come. (Notably absent from the mix: “Star Wars” and Nintendo characters, although there’s always “Ready Player Two.”)
There is a way to be cynical or too cool for school when openly chronicling this many influences, but when has Speilberg ever been cynical or too cool for school? He creates a convivial, everybody’s-invited atmosphere of inclusion, not exclusion. He wants everyone to have a good time.
That makes the movie a throwback, as well. Although it takes place in a dystopian 2045, after the “corn syrup droughts” and the “bandwidth riots” have altered the landscape of our society, its vibe is pure ’80s, and its across-the-board, crowd-pleasing nature recalls all-timers like “Back to the Future” and the “Indiana Jones” series.
Tye Sheridan of “Mud” and “X-Men: Apocalypse” (he played Cyclops) is Wade Watts, a teenager living in “The Stacks” — basically an ungainly pile of trailer homes — in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus, surely much to the chagrin of U of M fans, is the fastest growing city in America, since it was home to James Halliday (Mark Rylance, an Oscar winner for Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies”), the founder of an expansive virtual reality universe known as the Oasis. The Oasis is where pretty much everybody spends all of their free time, living a virtual existence where they can do anything and be anyone they want. Imagine society’s current addiction to Facebook and multiply it by the possibilities of a VR landscape, and you have the Oasis.
Before his death, Halliday hid a series of keys (or “Easter Eggs”) inside the Oasis, much like Spielberg has riddled “Ready Player One” with his own cache of Easter Eggs. If found, they will unlock his massive fortune, estimated at half a trillion dollars. These keys are so hard to come by, buried inside clues from Halliday’s own life, that after years of searching, the worldwide pursuit of them has yielded no returns. But Watts, in his gamer guise as Parzival, has a few ideas of his own.
There’s of course a corporate bad guy, played by Ben Mendelsohn (“Bloodline”) in yet another smarmy, villainous turn, and a love interest, played by “Thoroughbreds’” stunner Olivia Cooke. Cooke’s Samantha has a spunky in-game alter ego (known as “Art3mis”), who’s as brash and tough as Samantha wants to be in real life.
Much of “Ready Player One” unfolds inside the Oasis, and it understands the movement and mechanics of video games the way many gaming movies do not, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” excluded. (Looking at you, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.”) So while a good chunk of the movie is handed over to digital avatars — Sheridan might have less screen time as Wade than he does as Parzival — Spielberg never loses the heart or emotion of the story, nor does he get lost in a dull digital hellscape the way movies like “Final Fantasy” or “Warcraft” did.
Instead, “Ready Player One” is a blast of pure childlike amusement. Beyond its encyclopedic citations of pop culture past, it has a kinetic energy and big picture feel all its own. It feels like a new classic, one worthy of mention on its own accord. The next time a filmmaker goes deep in paying tribute to the greats, expect to see “Ready Player One” on that list.
‘Ready Player One’
Rated PG-13: for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language
Running time: 140 minutes
Ready Player One (PG-13)
Steven Spielberg’s joyous, buoyant ode to the last 40 years of pop culture has a dazzling kinetic energy all its own. (140 minutes) GRADE: A