Ready Player One engages in the weirdest, most toxic form of nostalgia

Steven Spielberg’s adaption of Ernest Cline’s novel is possibly the ultimate exercise in pandering.

Tye Sheridan in Ready Player One

The first movie I remember ever renting from the video store is something called Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue; I must have been four or five, and I loved it so much that I didn’t really entertain the idea of renting anything else for some time. Looking back, the “movie” is a mess: it’s an anti-drug PSA financed by McDonald’s that jams together a whole bunch of disparate cartoon characters to convince children not to do drugs. It took me years to recall what the tape was and I was flabbergasted to learn that it was even about drugs at all; all that registered with me at the time was that the thing gathered all of my favourite cartoon guys and gals under the same roof. Nevermind that it’s illogical that all of these characters have come together and never mind that their presence is merely a callous attempt at getting kids to pay attention (though I don’t think I was particularly in danger of using marijuana as a gateway drug at age four), I was high off the mathematics of the thing: if I like Garfield and I like Alf and I like Bugs Bunny and I like Pooh, I should like the thing that they’re all in exponentially more, shouldn’t I?

That seems to be at least part of the impetus behind Ernest Cline’s original novel, a smorgasbord of pop-culture worship that became a worldwide sensation by banking on that unmistakable feeling when you know you’re being pandered to and don’t care. (I should probably say, in all fairness, that I never read the whole thing.) Adapting Cline’s novel is a nightmare of copyright law clearances first and foremost, but it’s also paradoxical because the very world it inhabits is one that is limited only by the player’s imagination. Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One has limitations defined by Steven Spielberg’s imagination. While you’re certainly right to assume that of all the imaginations that could have dedicated themselves to this particular project, Spielberg ain’t half bad, the fact is that Ready Player One’s sweaty audience-pleasing pandering is a hard pill to swallow.

In 2045, the world has more or less become a giant shitheap. Most people have stopped working entirely to devote themselves to Oasis, a never-ending VR experience in which players can be whatever they want and dedicate themselves to whatever they want. Wade Williams (Tye Sheridan) has devoted most of his life to Oasis, but he’s particularly enamored with the story that socially awkward, pop-culture-obsessed Oasis creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) left behind after his death. Halliday has built in a series of clues that, when solved, give the “winner” ultimate possession of the game and untold riches. That’s an interesting prospect for evil CEO (and former Halliday intern) Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who could really use that kind of leverage to become the kind of evil mastermind he truly dreams of being. Wade and his in-game friends must beat Sorrento to the punch before all hell breaks loose.

Nearly every frame of Ready Player One is packed with references. Perhaps references is putting too fine a point on it; if they’re not references, they’re mentions. It goes from wide textual mentions (one of the characters is building an Iron Giant; another turns into a lightsaber-wielding Gundam) to blink-and-you’ll-miss-em background appearances in the film’s many breakneck-paced action scenes. When that’s not enough, characters will show up with seven fucking lapel pins depicting the WWF, the Dead Kennedys, Pokémon, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and whatever else can be boiled down to a lapel-pin-sized logo. It’s frankly exhausting to the point of meaninglessness, meant to elicit a Pavlovian response in audiences who groan appreciatively to show that they too know what Van Halen’s “Jump” is. (In this film’s world, music consists entirely of Top 40 hits from 1977 to 1987 – though a Joy Division t-shirt is featured prominently.)

Ready Player One is a lot about world-building, but the world here isn’t exactly carefully crafted. It’s a world created by a pop-culture hoarder, smugly stacking reference on top of reference for the entirety of its 140-minute runtime. (“I like the way things were when they were,” says Hallyday at one point, undoubtedly parroting the dopamine rush that audience members are getting from seeing a famous movie monster burst out of an equally famous videogame character.) There’s one sequence at the middle of the film that actually works, one in which the characters enter a beloved film. Though it isn’t particularly smart or canny in how it employs that beloved film, the fact that Spielberg actually pauses to catch his breath and fully explore the possibilities offered to him by this outlandish premise represents one of the few bright spots in the film. It’s difficult to imagine a film workingly entirely in this vibe, but then again, it’s surprising that not a single Minion dressed like David Bowie or some other similar mash-up monstrosity doesn’t show up in here.

It would be tempting to see it as satire – equivalent to a parent catching a kid smoking and forcing them to smoke the whole pack, except the cigarettes are made of nostalgia – but in the best case scenario, you could argue that it allows Spielberg to free-associate at will and pack his action scenes with as much visual detritus and stimulation as possible. Ready Player One’s action scenes are a thing of rare and particular beauty, extremely kinetic and captivating while also being frustratingly dumb and groan-worthy. Spielberg is both the perfect filmmaker to handle the dense onslaught of material and a disappointingly straightforward one. Suffice to say that I have never been this thoroughly enraptured by a film I found this embarrassingly stupid.

I wanted to like Ready Player One. It’s essentially designed to make you feel like a cynical and embittered fogey if you don’t. It is undeniably slickly made in a kind of hypercaffeinated way – the Spielberg film it most closely resembles, vibe-wise, is probably Hook – but Ready Player One is at odds with itself. It’s a movie that explores why we escape into the things that we do, but it does so by lulling audiences into their own sort of meaningless escape. It celebrates things for just being and pats audiences on the back for simply knowing what they are, which in itself is the weirdest, most toxic form of nostalgia. I’m sure I would have enjoyed this a lot more if it had come out when I was 12, but one of the points the movie certainly should make was that if you only care about the same shit now as you did when you were 12, you should maybe ask yourself some difficult questions. ■

Ready Player One opens in theatres Wednesday, March 28. Watch the trailer here: