I really hate nostalgia. That doesn’t mean I don’t understand why people get nostalgic. It makes perfect sense for people to lament about the good things in their past that are no longer around. I get nostalgic about things too. Nostalgia doesn’t do much other than impede progress, though. It forces you to keep reveling in the past, never moving forward or experiencing new things. Eventually, you become conditioned to only wanting things that are familiar, because it gives you that sense of comfortability. There comes a point, though, when you stop feeling genuine emotion, and just start numbing your brain from everything surrounding the nostalgia. That’s where nostalgia becomes a real problem.

Ready Player One follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teenager living in the slums of Columbus, Ohio in somewhat post-apocalyptic 2045. In this time, the primary form of entertainment for everybody is The Oasis: a completely virtual world where you can do whatever you want and be whoever you want to be. You can be Chucky, Batman, Mechagodzilla, or really anything you set your mind to. The Oasis was created by late game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a man obsessed with mostly 1980’s pop culture, who hid three keys throughout for the players to find. Whoever finds the three keys leads the player to an Easter egg, which will give them complete control over The Oasis. While Wade and his friends try to figure out the clues and find the keys, nefarious corporation IOI is also on the hunt and will do anything to gain control of the virtual world.

Since the entire idea of Ready Player One is about reveling in 1980’s nostalgia, I automatically kind of hated the film just because of what it stood for. I understand it’s based off a novel, and the whole point of that novel is nostalgia, but that still means I hate everything the source material stands for. In the age of endless reboots, remakes, and readapatations, this is the culmination of people’s inability to let go of their childhoods and move on to new things. Why do people still talk about The Iron Giant? Because it’s a beautifully animated film with a touching story. Not just because of the Iron Giant. Is it cool seeing him appear in a fight scene? I suppose so, but all of that emotional context is completely lost. It all boils down to, “Hey, you remember this, right?” It’s all incredibly cynical, with no genuine heart or emotion to it. Even worse, a lot of the references are flat out explained to the viewer, just so Spielberg can make sure the audience gets it. Doesn’t that kind of remove the fun of spotting the references in the first place?

Despite my reservations and biases, I still went into this with a completely open mind. Just like a lot of other people, I love Steven Spielberg. He’s one of the kings of blockbuster entertainment, but since he doesn’t write his films, he’s really only as good as the screenplay is. Well, the screenplay by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (who wrote the original novel) is nothing more than a vehicle to throw pop culture references at us, with any elements of story and character being complete afterthoughts. The plot is extremely simple, but the pacing is awful because it never takes any time to slow down. It’s all race, race, race to the finish, which has been shown to work in some action films, but the characters don’t seem to grow at all throughout the action. The emotional core is supposed to be between Wade and the budding romance with his female companion Samantha. Aside from one sequence in the middle, we never really get anytime for the film to slow down and explore these characters for a bit. I never knew what any of the characters wanted beyond getting the Easter Egg to control the Oasis. The problem is everybody has that exact same goal, so what makes our protagonist Wade so special? The actors all do a fine job, but they have pretty much nothing to work with. Halliday is the only character with any sort of depth, and Mark Rylance plays him perfectly, but he’s not in the film enough to keep any interest. 

Even the villain’s motivations are totally lame. IOI wants to take control of The Oasis just so they can force advertisements in there? That’s it?  As this plot moves along, you realize this whole world doesn’t really make much sense. How come IOI can just blow up people’s homes without repercussions? It seems like they’re some sort of governmental organization, but then there’s a scene with police officers in it. I never got a good grasp of the characters, the story, the passage of time, the world, or really with anything. The film moves at such a rapid pace that’s devoted more to action than anything else, so it seemed like there was no real thought put into anything besides the references. A majority of the film taking place in The Oasis allows the action to be quite creative, such as a really neat racing sequences with cars flipping all over the place and having near death experiences with a T-rex. Like I said in my review of The Post, Spielberg is still very stylish in his direction, and he directs that action very clearly and methodically. Overall, though, it just felt empty after a while. I couldn’t be bothered to care about anything, so it just becomes a bunch of mindless noise with really nothing of consequence happening. Spielberg can inject schmaltz all he wants in the end, but that isn’t enough if you didn’t make me care before. 

It felt like a lot more time was devoted to figuring out how many references could be shoved into the film, instead of an actually engrossing story that uses this virtual reality as a backdrop. Well, apparently that’s how the novel is, so perhaps Ready Player One is actually a satisfactory adaptation of the book? Who knows? All I know is that I need a lot more than just nostalgic familiarity to keep myself invested in a narrative. It actually needs a narrative. Characters with goals and flaws. Tension, stakes, a consistent world. I should be excited when watching the action, because I want the characters to succeed. I shouldn’t be excited just because I recognize Batman and he happens to be there. At that point, it’s just “neat” with no actual emotional connection. There’s a lot to see here in Ready Player One, but absolutely nothing to feel. Looks like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is still the best film Spielberg’s made in the past decade.


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