***THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS VERY MINOR SPOILERS FOR READY PLAYER ONE***
Some way into Ready Player One, there’s a brief but pivotal scene where the founders of the Oasis – played by Mark Rylance and Simon Pegg – discuss the practicalities and merits of living in the past or looking to the future. It’s a conflict that runs throughout the movie, though given that the main people pushing the futurist agenda are the bad guys, and since the weight of the film rests on its pop culture references, it’s clear to see which side the movie is on overall.
There have been many criticisms of the movie – many before it even released – that accused Ready Player One of relying too heavily on its reference points in 80s movies and video game subculture, to name a couple. There is admittedly a fair bit of quoting of such things and more – vocally and visually – but somehow the likeable characters and enjoyable enough story make it bearable enough when watching.
What works most strongly in the movie’s favour throughout, and what stays with the viewer long after leaving the auditorium, is the world in which Parzival, Aech, Art3mis and the other “gunters” adventure. To take a cue from its most notable trailer, Ready Player One‘s virtual Oasis is offered to us as a World of Pure Imagination; the movie’s opening sequence offers infinite possibilities such as skiing down the Pyramids or climbing Everest with Batman – both put forward as off-handedly as though one were suggesting a walk through the woods.
In all honesty, it’s understandable that there would be a heavy basis in pop culture reference with such a world available to anyone. Give someone free reign to create anything they choose with what’s to hand and chances are you’ll get something based in Star Wars, Marvel or whatever has captured the public’s interest in the last 5 minutes. Therefore it’s easy to see why the Oasis is filled with references from the 80s, video games and all other sorts of nerd-cultural detritus. The question is, whether or not this makes for entertaining watching?
The short answer is, not on its own. While the film seems to want to embrace the lip-service it pays in every other frame, the times when Ready Player One shines are when it’s focussed on its (mostly) likeable characters and the grim reality outside of the VR goggles. Of course there are moments when story, character and reference combine beautifully – the Shining sequence is brilliantly paced and I’d be lying if I didn’t crack a smile at the MechaGodzilla vs. Gundam third act (more drama and stakes than in all of Pacific Rim: Uprising).
Ultimately though, Ready Player One is a slave to the nostalgia it tries so hard to embrace. While certainly a spectacle and not short on fun, it’s hard to dig any deeper than the references the movie throws at its audience; what offered to be an adventure into pure imagination ends up feeling like nothing more than a half remembered dream.