Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One is competent, occasionally rousing entertainment that nonetheless left me a little bummed.
Bummed that its premise — players enter a video game that favors competitors fluent in 1980s pop culture — means that top-level Hollywood talent has again been deployed to sate our apparently endless appetite for reconsuming stuff we enjoyed 30 years ago.
Our jones for another Guardians of the Galaxy/'80s fix now makes a conscript of Spielberg, and for that matter Wes Anderson.
How weird is it that talents as diverse and unique as Anderson and Spielberg would roll out movies rife with Atari references on virtually the same day? Or that scenes in Ready Player One involving references to John Hughes would so closely follow Love, Simon, a modern facsimile of a Hughes movie (scored by a band that was formed to create the sort of music that you might hear in Hughes movie).
Maybe it's not so weird in an entertainment industry that now runs on nostalgia. The animating — and half of the movie is animated — principle behind Ready Player One is that if you're going to do '80s nostalgia, do it right: spare no expense, make the movie as thickly referential as possible, and have it directed by somebody who was actually there.
I give Spielberg credit for not flogging his own stuff. He pays homage instead to directors like Robert Zemeckis, Stanley Kubrick, John Boorman, and others. And he certainly grasps that what retro addicts crave most is a movie that flatters and rewards their worship of trivia and minutia — a Buckaroo Banzai reference is paired with an Orson Welles reference, which will play especially well for folks who geek out on Buckaroo.
I get it, I feel it, I laughed. And I felt a little less guilty about the 12 hours I've spent on the couch watching Jeff Goldblum get duded up to play a cowboy named New Jersey (that's a Buckaroo reference). But I was unconvinced by the movie's efforts to convince me that this behavior is virtuous, or emblematic of rebel cool.
That's certainly implied in Ready Player One, wherein a loose association of ragtag gamers enter a virtual realm called OASIS to win a game where the stakes are high — bragging rights, half a trillion dollars, and permanent control of the game (bequeathed by the game's founder-designer, played by Mark Rylance).
Renegade gamers Wade (Tye Sheridan) and Samantha (Olivia Cooke) and other freelancers (Lena Waithe, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki) go up against a greedy tech corporation and its honcho Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who hires a giant army of researchers and gamers to do what Wade and Samantha do via individual genius and aptitude.
This conflict leads to a scene in which Sorrento tries to bribe and con Wade into going corporate. He pretends to be a pop-culture geek as researchers feed teen-movie trivia into his ear. Wade immediately senses that Sorrento is not authentic and denounces him as unworthy of winning the game.
In this moment, the movie attempts to redefine consumption and consumerism as rebellion, which is something a greedy tech corporation might do. Or a movie studio whose bag of new ideas is empty.
When Wade's gang and Sorrento's corporation finally square off, each fighter is represented as his pop-culture avatar, and it's a melee of branded characters. It reminded me a bit of the finale of The Lego Movie, which handled some of the same themes with more humor and sophistication and certainly tried to question the need for adults to remain fixated on the entertainment they enjoyed as children.
When it comes to reliving the past, though, Ready Player One is all-in. You'll note that one of the OASIS cofounders is played by Simon Pegg, king of the retro geeks, who turns up to give the whole thing his solemn benediction, as befits the star and cowriter of Hot Fuzz and other odes to '80s pop.
Pegg and Spielberg are talented, brilliant guys, among the most qualified to make time-machine movies — yes, Bill and Ted are mentioned — that roll the clock back 30 years.
It would also be nice to see them make original movies that people would reference 30 years from now.
Ready Player One. Directed by Steven Spielberg. With Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki. Distributed by Warner Bros.
Running time: 140 minutes
Parents guide: PG-13