When Ready Player One begins, Wade Watts is in transit. Fireman-sliding his way down a series of a poles and ropes is just how he gets from his aunt's dingy apartment to terra firma in "the Stacks," a teetering settlement of stacked blight in Columbus, Ohio. The year 2045 is all bad around these parts, Watts (Tye Sheridan) tells you in voiceover. The Corn Syrup Droughts, the Bandwidth Riots. Mass poverty.
The point of the sequence isn't Watts' rote, affectless exposition, though. This being a Steven Spielberg movie, it's a world-building orientation, both visual and temporal—a long tracking shot through 2045's everyday technologies. Pizza-delivering drones buzz through the foreground; an enormous video billboard for a haptic suit blares in the background. And both of those are in service to everything else you see on Watts' downward jaunt: ubiquitous virtual reality. In the Stacks, as in Columbus at large and the bleak world beyond that, escape comes via VR headsets. This is the infinite possibility of the OASIS, a sprawling metaverse of virtual experiences in which people can indulge in everything from boxing matches to champagne-room stripteases to climbing Mount Everest with Batman.
But all is not well in VR land! The late inventor of the OASIS, a socially awkward, ’80s-obsessed programmer named James Halliday (Mark Rylance), devised a massive Easter-egg hunt before his death, hiding a trio of keys throughout the OASIS that give whoever finds all three ownership of the trillion-dollar platform itself. The quest has been ongoing for years, with "gunters" (as in "egg hunters," and also as in "please never say that word in polite company") racing to complete the challenge before corporate monolith IOI does. The OASIS may be a free, but it won't be if IOI chairman Nolan Sorrento—played by a swaggering, oily Ben Mendelsohn—has his way.
Wade Watts is one of those gunters. Known in the OASIS as Parzival (the Grail-seeking knight of Arthurian lore), he spends all his free time studying Halliday's life in hopes of cracking the hunt's first clue—which he does, sparking the movie's chase across both the OASIS and Columbus as Watts and his VR buddies try to elude IOI and its army of drone-like headset mercenaries. All that Hallididacticism, though, has turned Watts into a walking Wikipedia of late-’70s and early-’80s pop culture: Atari 2600 games; the spaceships of sci-fi movies and series; and in one cringe-inducing sequence, the disco choreography of Saturday Night Fever.
Therein lies the movie's greatest burden. In Ernest Cline's original 2011 novel, the OASIS was a warm nostalgia bath for ’80s kids, and its vision of VR's possibilities inspired a generation of developers eager to turn it into a reality. ("There is a reason we gave it to all employees at Oculus," Oculus founder Palmer Luckey tweeted from the movie's Hollywood premiere earlier this week.) But once you got past the "oh, hey, Joust!" reactions, the book just kinda … stopped. It was a fun scavenger hunt, populated with products rather than people. And while the movie's screenplay (courtesy of Zak Penn and Cline himself) remedies some the book's most pressing flaws—especially Wade's incessant ephemera-dropping and nerd-culture oneupmanship—it still conflates recognition with enjoyment.
In Ernest Cline's original 2011 novel was a warm nostalgia bath for ’80s kids. It was a fun scavenger hunt, populated with products rather than people. And while the movie's screenplay remedies some of the book's most pressing flaws, it still conflates recognition with enjoyment.
Spielberg doesn't seem to mind. He leans into the comfort of the past like he's always done, trading pulp serials and monster movies for the pastimes of a later generation of indoor kids. There to assist is Warner Bros., who flings wide the doors of its massive catalog for the biggest IP mashup since Wreck-It Ralph; the result, at least in the movie's kinetic in-VR setpieces, is a super smash-cut of movie, gaming, and anime icons. The Iron Giant! Freddy Krueger! Looney Toons! DC Comics! Beetlejuice! Akira! (But also, like, Battletoads?) In one fight scene, Wade-as-Parzival goes full Street Fighter, following up Ryu's hadouken with Guile's flash kick. There's a subset of people who will freak right the hell on out in that moment, and a subset of people who won't even know it's happening.
But all those characters obscure actual character, and Spielberg's usual gang of scrappy kids turns out to be cardboard-thin in the outside world. Wade's best friend in the OASIS, a cyberpunk ogre named Aech, is in real life a woman named Helen (Lena Waithe)—but once the headsets come off, she gets strikingly little to do or say beyond driving everyone around in her postal truck. His rival-slash-love-interest, Art3mis, at first ducks his affections, protesting that she looks nothing like her avatar … but of course the real Samantha Cooper (Olivia Cooke) is as manic-pixie-badass as her avatar. (And while VR can connect people a world away, Wade and Samantha both conveniently live within eyeshot of IOI's corporate headquarters.) The other members of their merry OASIS clan, Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao), are a ninja and a shogun in VR; in real life, they're revealed to be Japanese and … well, that's it. No, wait; one is a prodigy, the other meditates.
It's difficult not to see these choices as a missed opportunity. While the characters are more or less who they were in the book, you're still dealing with the fact that only the two attractive white people at the center get backstories, while a black woman and two otaku get dropped in to support their endeavor. The Goonies all had personalities; the "High Five," as they're known, too often feel like empty archetypes.
Make no mistake: No one here is bad. The supporting cast is legitimately good. T.J. Miller makes "going full T.J. Miller" seem like an OK thing again, sinking his teeth into the role of I-R0k, an OASIS baddie who's the virtual embodiment of a seventh-grade metal fan's notebook doodles. Hannah John-Kamen (Black Mirror) is chilling as Nolan Sorrento's black-ops attache, F'Nale Zandor. And in flashbacks, Rylance and Simon Pegg bring just enough heart to their strained relationship as the cofounders of the OASIS' parent company. But between the thin characterizations of the core protagonists, and too many goofy shots of headsetted people VR-fighting their way down Columbus' perma-rainy sidewalks, Ready Player One has about as much depth and breadth as the first board of Galaga.
"People come to the OASIS for what they can do," Watts says early on in the movie. "But they stay for what they can be." That's the promise of VR, even in 2018. We already have multiuser environments that feel like OASES in training: dropping into VRchat, which allows for custom avatars, you're likely to see Heath Ledger's Joker, King of the Hill's Hank Hill, or any number of anime characters. The ability to be embodied as someone else means that VR can become wish fulfillment writ large, and in this adaptation of Cline's novel that acts both as fan service and compelling spectacle. But VR also allows for real connection—friendships like Parzival and Aech's, relationships that can bleed over into real life. And that's not where Ready Player One takes you.
That's not Steven Spielberg's aim. It never has been. He wants you to feel like a kid again—and in that regard, he succeeds. Ready Player One is a caper, a breezy, stock-charactered scavenger hunt that manages to overcome its virtual stakes and its frequently clunky dialog to be as big and loud and fun as a romp through nerd-culture history should be.
But it comes at a cost. "I like things how they were," Halliday says in one archived memory. "Why can't we go backwards for once? Backwards really fast, as fast as we can—really put the pedal to the metal." Like the OASIS itself, Ready Player One is an emulator, preserving the heroes and heroics of days gone by. When those deeds fade, though, all that's left behind is pixels. And no matter how fast you go backwards, you can't put them back together again.