Adorning its very first shot with the unmistakable opening notes of Van Halen’s “Jump,” Ready Player One cops as quickly as possible to what it’s selling. The movie wants and expects your familiarity with any and all of its cavalcade of pop culture references to render you right-at-home from minute one, much in the way its characters have created an all-encompassing virtual home comprising the very same.
And perhaps this is what you want as well. What dork of a certain age wouldn’t expect the occasional rush among two hours of facetime with Batman, King Kong, and the Iron Giant, and varyingly cagey allusions to Star Trek, Back to the Future, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (or Worms Armageddon, depending on who you ask)? After all, it’s not just familiarity with the likes of Space Invaders and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that should fuel excitement over the prospect of a movie so molecularly impelled toward references; it’s the love for the source material.
The law of averages insists that there’s got to be something among the bevy of late 20th century high school movies, animated series, and video games constituting Ready Player One’s organic matter that rings important to you. It certainly presumes that such things mean the very world—quite literally—to the characters onscreen. The problem is that Ready Player One doesn’t seem altogether interested in why you or its characters might love its many points of reference. Moreover, it doesn’t seem willing to consider that there might even be a why composing any such love.
Acknowledgement of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension as our hero Wade Watts’ (Tye Sheridan) favorite movie doesn’t encourage discussion about what he likes so much about it, as Ready Player One—a movie ostensibly about movie fandom—is inscrutably satisfied to assume that there’s nothing worth saying on the matter. A literal replication of The Shining runs through all the moments fans of the film hold dear, but without a hint of engagement with what makes the film a horror classic worth invoking, and on so large a scale. Varied characters’ embrace of John Hughes, Gundam, and Duran Duran are meant to suggest something more than passing interest, but are never allowed to showcase anything beyond.
The consequences of this degree of ambivalence are far greater than a series of weightless nods. We’re ushered instantly—hastily, even—into a world that has ostensibly expensed the whole of its functioning economy and cultural psychology toward the maintenance of the Oasis, a virtual realm invented, decades before the kickoff of our story, by entertainment tech mogul James Halliday (Mark Rylance) in the interest of allowing humankind an escape from “the real world” into the affectionate embrace of its favorite fibers of new media. As the movie allots only enough time in the very same real world for the occasional narrative digression meant principally to tie two Oasis-based set pieces together, we never really get an idea of who these people or what their lives are beyond the game.
We know Wade is one of many who lives in poverty, but we haven’t the faintest idea of what that means in the alleged future dystopia of 2044 Ohio. We know characters played by Olivia Cooke and Lena Waithe favor their Oasis avatars to their corporeal forms, but offer no appreciation for what it means to be either one of them on Ready Player One’s planet Earth. All we’re ever allowed to know about anyone on screen is that they live for the Oasis and the pop culture woven about its DNA. So the fact that Ready Player One has no interest in its characters’ pop culture preferences, or why they might have found home in their hearts, relegates them to entirely empty shells.
So what are we left with? There are the performances—serviceable across the board, with Rylance, Waithe, and Ben Mendelsohn (playing a nefarious corporate bigwig who wants to claim ownership of the Oasis for himself) standing out as occasionally charming. There are the film’s technical endeavors—not altogether unexciting (especially the first act’s crash- and flip-laden drag race through a digital New York City), but certainly not exciting enough to elevate Ready Player One to a plateau of genuine intrigue. And then there’s the convoluted moral of the story, one that seems as paradoxical (at once devoted to the bounties of the Oasis as it is cognizant of it inherent toxicity inherent, but not in an especially challenging way) as it is plucked from thin air.
Ready Player One doesn’t offer enough to sustain any one of its elements, let alone its entire package. And while it aims to rest on the laurels of its eager celebration of the movies, TV shows, and video games its characters and fans know and love, its management of this component might be its greatest crime. If Ready Player One thinks there’s no more to say about the pop culture we love than, well, the fact that we love it, it doesn’t understand what pop culture really means.
Rating: 1.5 out of 5 burritos
Images: Warner Bros
M. Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Find them on Twitter @micarbeiter.