Steven Spielberg Proves he’s Still Game for an Oasis of Juvenile Adventure


The people of a dystopian future battle one another for a set of keys that will grant them a fortune and complete control of the artificial world they plug into.  It’s not The Hunger Games.  It’s not Charlie and the Chocolate Factory It’s not Tron It’s all of the above, and so much more.  Much much much much more, with the emphasis on “much”.

Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One nicely bookends the director’s feature film career (at least until he releases his next film) opposite Jaws with another crowd-pleasing adaptation of a popular book that, let’s face it, is not that well written.  The similarities between these two particular films, however, stops there.  Based upon the young adult novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One tells the story of a poor but resourceful young guy from “The Stacks” (a stacked up trailer park, basically) named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan).  It’s the year 2045, and the world is such a big trashy dump that all anyone cares to do is plug into The Oasis, a hyper-detailed virtual reality game where you can be anything, do anything, and anonymity is guaranteed.

The sheer array of familiar properties that turn up… is the most staggering thing about the film.  One actively wonders how many intellectual property lawyers were employed for this undertaking.

When The Oasis was created by the late James Halliday (a convincingly wiggy Mark Rylance), it was done so out of its creator’s altruistic love of 1980’s popular culture, give or take a few years on either end.  Now that he’s dead, he’s having the biggest contest of all time: whomsoever wins his three Oasis challenges will be awarded a fortune in the real world, and total control over The Oasis.  It’s a pretty amazing place, so completion is pretty fierce.  Like, totally.

When avatars attack

The sweeping establishing shots that introduce The Oasis feel, more than anything else, like the thrown-together pop culture color jumble of a little boy’s Lego box, or the central hub in Wreck-It Ralph Over here, it’s Batman; over there, it’s Freddy Krueger.  Spot RoboCop in this crowd shot, see the A-Team van in that car cluster.  It’s all kinds of fun-yet-useless all at the same time.  The sheer array of familiar properties that turn up in one way or another is the most staggering thing about the film.  One actively wonders how many intellectual property lawyers were employed for this undertaking, and if anyone other than Spielberg could’ve landed this many outside creations.

But, as staggering as they are to take in, the non-stop pop culture references are also the weak spot, in so much as they’re the selling point for both the film and The Oasis itself.  In the film, Wade believes Halliday to have arrived at a personal place of regret about having gone so all-in for his beloved movies, TV and video games.  (Video game iconography is just as rampant as genre film and TV iconography is, though, not being a gamer, I couldn’t begin to identify them.  Spielberg, however, has recently claimed allegiance with gamers.  So, be careful when you log onto your Xbox – you might just be battling the director of Schindler’s List).

It’s as though Halliday couldn’t ever divorce himself entirely from his love of these things, but he must acknowledge the vapidity of when it becomes a barrage.  Ditto Spielberg on that in the making of this movie.  Yes, the legendary director is having his cake and eating it too, but he does seem to knows that while he, of all people, may wield the capacity for an unlimited cake budget, there is such a thing as a cake-induced sugar rush.

So, it’s a message movie.  Gee whiz.  Love the stuff that you love, but don’t forget to look up from it to occasionally kiss the girl.  Wade’s Oasis avatar is a sleek manga dude called Parzival who drives the DeLorean from Back to the Future, but modified with a Knight Rider/Glen Larson back-and-forth red light on the grill.  Back to the Future, which Spielberg produced for Robert Zemeckis, is one of the only references to his own movies that makes the cut, despite the book utilizing a glut of them.  Meanwhile, a time manipulating device in the Oasis is called a “Zemeckis cube”, as though that’s clever.  For better or worse, that’s the level Ready Player One is stuck on.

Anyhow, Wade/Parzival races, competes, and squares off repeatedly against Art3mis, an attractive and punchy young cartoon gal.  Despite a constant throng of corporate stooges tasked with competing on behalf of the evil tech company IOI, Art3mis is Parzival’s nearest real competition.  She’s also his major crush, even as she warns him not to get too close – for all he knows, her Real World counterpart could be literally anyone.  Fortunately for Wade, she turns out to be Samantha, played by the lovely young Olivia Cooke of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl fame.  

Teaming up on both planes of reality to foil Nolan Sorrento, the greedy  and conniving IOI executive played by Ben Mendelsohn, Wade and Samantha fall in with a ragtag bunch of fellow gamers-turned-freedom-fighters, all of whom conveniently live near one another.  There’s Aech/Helen, played by LGTB actor Lena Waithe; there’s the mystical samurai/Japanese teenager Diato/Toshiro (Win Morisaki); and finally, there’s the Mortal Kombat-style ninja/Japanese kid, Akihide/Shoto (Philip Zhao).  A thematic point of these three seems to be the divergence between their real life selves and their awesome Oasis avatars, making up for the fact that our protagonists are bland and blander types (white, straight, naturally resourceful), at least by the “progressive” pushes circa 2018.  But only together can they win the day. As much as it’s meant to come off as a Star Wars situation (Rebellion against The Empire), a lot of times it comes off more like Twister.  (“Those are the corporate tornado chasers!”)

(l-r) Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Philip Zhao and Win Morisaki in the Real World.

Even as Ready Player One doesn’t settle as well as it should beyond the wildly-appealing-to-twelve-year-olds level, Spielberg’s love and appreciation of geek cult culture comes through, even with his standing as entertainment’s most powerful seventy-two year-old.  Being who he is, though, he can’t help but plant just a bit of cautionary wisdom about the perils of total pop culture immersion.  That said, while Ready Player One may not emerge as a deep film to think about, it’s unquestionably dazzling to look at, well worth the theatrical jaunt if only for that reason.  The Oasis portions play as fantastic motion-capture animated worlds, rendered in an entirely appropriate familiar/future kind of way.  The “Where’s Waldo” of it all demands a quick eye and repeated viewings, as it’s more like “Where’s Everyone and Everything”.  This is top tier action moviemaking.

Spielberg mainstay composer John Williams had to sit this one out, though it’s perfect that the great Alan Silvestri take his place, allowing more for the justified minor reprisals of his Back to the Future music here and there.  Likewise, the movie’s best poster is a wonderful Drew Struzan-style rendering by the emerging illustrative talent, Paul Shipper.

Although it’s 2045 in Ready Player One, there disparities, obsessions and goals of the film are completely 2018.  Commodification of once-organic or semi-organic pop culture has been happening for years.  Cynics can point out that Spielberg and Warner Brothers, the studio behind this film, are at least somewhat compliant, if only by association.  But by the time this particular game is over, and all the Easter Eggs have been found, there’s little doubt that all creative intentions are, in this case, pure.  Juvenile perhaps, but pure.  And players in any age are always ready to sink their jaws into that.