Steven Spielberg’s movie of Ernest Cline’s seminal gamer novel, Ready Player One, is a lively and agreeable work of fanboy art — a first-rate film fashioned from secondhand materials. It unfolds in 2045, much of it in a Columbus, Ohio, laid out like a filthy, decaying vertical trailer park. This is the world tech-phobics fear, in which social and political conditions are so depressing that most people prefer the drug of virtual reality — which, of course, renders them even more impotent to effect change.
The vast cyberworld that beckons on huge, animated billboards is called OASIS, and that’s the realm in which the movie’s protagonist, an orphan teen named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), strives to make his mark under the guise of his snazzy avatar, Parzival [sic].* Wade is a “gunter” — a hunter of an Easter egg that has been hidden in OASIS by James Halliday, the shambling gazillionaire misfit who created it. Halliday functions as a mentor/father figure to Wade. The problem is that he’s dead.
Early in his career, Spielberg plainly identified with fatherless boys or else boyishly ungrounded men, but over the last two decades he has focused on what it means to be a responsible patriarch — of a family or, in the case of Abraham Lincoln, a nation. So pay attention to how he handles the character of Halliday, whose cyber sword in the stone will determine the next king of his gargantuan enterprise but who doesn’t exist in the “real” world.
Halliday appears in two incarnations, both played by Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and lent his voice and form to the gentle title giant of Spielberg’s The BFG. Halliday is a big kid — a fanboy with the means to build shrines to that fandom — rather than a Steve Jobs–like megalomaniacal businessman. Rylance’s Halliday has lank hair and slurry, unemphatic diction, as if he’s always grasping for the next word, along with the subtle panic of a man uncomfortable in his skin. He embodies the movie’s double-edged perspective on immersive fandom: It both liberated and stunted him. Halliday knows that whoever succeeds him in running OASIS must grapple with both the joys and the perils of virtual reality.
By rights, Wade should be that successor, OASIS’s King Arthur. (His real name is near enough to the young Arthur’s, Wart, while “Parzifal” with or without the z seeks the Holy Grail.) But first Wade needs to visit Halliday’s virtual headquarters and study the digital recordings that Halliday left of his life. The road to a higher truth begins with an avatar watching a ghost.
Two avatars, actually. In the course of the OASIS competition (briefly: one must cross a finish line to receive a key that opens a box with a clue to the location of the next key that opens a box …), Parzival falls for a sleek biker chick called Art3mis who exists in the real world as Samantha (Olivia Cooke). There’s an honorable history of nerds getting politicized by smart, pretty girls, and that’s Wade. Previously, he has wanted that Easter egg to get famous, but Samantha/Art3mis makes it clear that the overriding aim must be to stop one Nolan Sorrento, a business titan played by Ben Mendelsohn in shifty Dick Nixon mode. Sorrento oversees Innovative Online Industries (IOI), which has an army of enforcers and cyberwarriors, as well as “retraining centers” designed to redirect dissident behavior. Much is made of the fact that Sorrento is not a fanboy. Which is what it’s all about, really.
Fandom in Ready Player One is an exalted state, and fandom of all things born in the ’80s and ’90s — when Halliday and the digital universe came of age — is the kingdom of heaven. The good guys bond over movies and books and old-fashioned video games. Parzival’s lumbering pal Aech (an avatar) has a workshop full of pop-culture bric- a-brac that includes a nearly finished replica of the Iron Giant. The Iron Giant! On a cyber-date with Art3mis, Parzival wears a suit from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. Yes, the most nakedly wannabe “cult movie” ever made finally has its cult! Cline’s novel is full of tech-speak and gamer minutiae, and that’s in the movie, too. (Cline wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn.) But Spielberg’s heart is clearly in the movies he can raid and the monsters he can repurpose. King Kong guards the first finish line. There’s a lengthy excursion into Stanley Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel — maybe the movie’s high point. The climax features the Iron Giant squaring off against Mechagodzilla. Mechagodzilla! Who was in charge of getting access to licensed characters? Superman? You’d need some kind of doctorate to get all the Easter eggs.
In Cline’s novel, Spielberg must have recognized an opportunity to make the ultimate CGI spectacle — to surpass the work of Michael Bay and Guillermo del Toro (in Pacific Rim) and all those indentured Marvel/DC directors — and also to transcend CGI spectacle, to capture both the longing for transcendence at its core as well as the perils of virtual reality. The first — surpassing — he does handily. Even with so much clutter in every frame, the storytelling is clean, the action crisp and economical. There’s not much wrong with the movie on its own terms.
But there’s nothing great about it, either. It doesn’t have the breathless exuberance, the highs, of Spielberg’s best “escapist” work, maybe because everything is so filtered, so arm’s length. It’s all other people’s tropes animated by armies of computer artists. You can understand how Spielberg could have walked away from Ready Player One while the effects were being assembled and made The Post — and why he might have felt he had to. He must have been starved for making something by hand.
There’s nothing “real” about the reality that Halliday counsels that you have to break through to. Ready Player One’s “real” consists of a young, carefully assembled multicultural clan contrived to appeal to markets white, black, and Asian. (Cooke’s Samantha is supposed to be disfigured by a giant facial birthmark, but it’s the loveliest giant birthmark I’ve ever seen.) The utopian gamer culture is fake to its marrow.
Spielberg looms over Ready Player One like his true alter ego, which isn’t the eager, sometime reckless Wade, but the forlorn, abstracted Halliday. Let’s not forget that Spielberg ushered in the age of the corporate blockbuster with Jaws, launched the era of CGI spectacle with Jurassic Park, and produced the Transformer movies that built such a profitable bridge to the Asian market. That has given him untold riches and power — but also, I’m guessing, the feeling that he hasn’t lived up to his responsibilities as a patriarch. Maybe he saw Ready Player One as a way of saying to the young, “Here’s how you can beat the corporations and break through to the real from inside this synthetic, secondhand fanboy world.” Maybe he even believes that. But the artist in him can’t quite make that comforting lie soar.
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the name of the gaming system as ORACLE.