Spielberg’s Ready Player One: Pop Culture 101
Some things fit like a hand in a glove, and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One is certainly a “peanut butter meets jelly” kind of moment. Taking place in, of course, a dystopia in the near future, the story is a smorgasbord of pop culture allusions that come so fast and furious that those attempting to keep track of it all will likely give up after the first hour. (I quit at about the 45-minute mark). But that’s part of the fun, as is the briskly told story that features a sympathetic group of teens fighting an oppressive corporation bent on taking over the infinite world of virtual reality.
Wade (Tye Sheridan) is the hero in question, a desperate young man who lives in the Stacks, a vertical slum consisting of discarded mobile homes outside of Columbus, Ohio. Life in the real world is awful (think futuristic, Dickensian poverty) but there is an opiate all are addicted to in order to escape: The Oasis. Created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), citizens enter this digital world via their virtual reality goggles and can become anything they want, go anywhere they wish, and create whatever reality they can imagine. More have entered The Oasis in the five years since Halliday has died and left one last challenge: The person who can track down three hidden keys that will unlock the location of the ultimate Easter egg will get ownership of The Oasis.
Thus, the typical quest plot is put into gear as Wade and thousands of others, including his friends Helen (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki), Sho (Philip Zhao) and love interest Samantha (Olivia Cooke) enter The Oasis on a daily basis in an attempt to solve this puzzle. Once a person goes into this digital minefield, they can become anyone or anything they want, which allows Spielberg, Penn and Cline to open up their pop culture bag of goodies where a plethora of familiar characters and gizmos abound. King Kong rubs shoulders with Marvin the Martian, the Batmobile shares the road with Back to the Future’s DeLorean, and various Ray Harryhausen creatures share the battlefield with The Iron Giant.
Needless to say, this is a fanboy’s delight with pop culture match-ups and throw-downs you could only dream of right before your very eyes. The action sequences these characters appear in zoom by as Spielberg zigs, zags and caroms through one challenge after another, passing or running into one familiar icon after another. It proves exhilarating rather than exhausting, as unlike modern action directors, he knows how to pace these scenes and does not employ a rapid editing style that obscures what we see. He gives us just enough time to identify whom we’re with and where we’re at before rocketing us to the next wonder.
Like most modern action films, One overstays its welcome with a bloated third act that could have been trimmed by 15 minutes. Thankfully, the performers are engaging, and Sheridan and Cooke are naturally appealing and have us rooting for them from the get-go. Ben Mendelsohn as the big, bad Sorrento is properly buffoonish, while T.J. Miller offers sound comic relief as a digital assassin who takes things much too literally. The only misstep is Mark Rylance as Halliday, who simply isn’t convincing as the addled boy genius who never grows up.
The film’s final message – that reality is better and that you shouldn’t be gaming all the time – rings false after all of the digital wonderment we’ve been assailed with, yet there’s no denying the magic Spielberg conjures here. One is an immersive experience that revels in the fantastic possibilities that await us, but in the end, turns a blind eye to its dangers.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at