To call Ready Player One a love letter to pop culture is not accurate. It’s more like a towering testament to everything writer Ernest Cline and director Steven Spielberg love to geek out about, as though they grabbed every toy chest of their favorite franchises, dumped them onto the floor, and built something astounding out of them. Sure, there’s a twinge of cringe to see this nostalgic mecca cobbled together from Gundam parts and flux capacitors, but I just couldn’t help myself in getting lost within its geeky glee.
The future of 2044 is such a bleak one that humanity has shifted its focus to virtual reality. I can’t say I blame them when our protagonist’s home in Columbus, Ohio, is a series of trailers stacked on top of one other. The computer-generated escape from reality is known as the OASIS, a boundless universe where you can do anything from dancing at a club to racing against dinosaurs, all with avatars of your own choosing. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a teenage nerd in reality but a slick-haired hero known as Parzival in the OASIS. But he’s not merely trying to escape for social connections and geeking out over pop culture—everyone in the game is searching for the hidden keys placed by OASIS’s creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), with cryptic clues behind their locations. The one who finds all three keys will unlock the ownership of the OASIS, so everyone naturally goes nutty investing in those golden tickets. Sorry, keys.
True to the Amblin brand, Spielberg’s film is a youth-targeted adventure full of nostalgic glee for the franchises of yesteryear. The good guys are teenagers, using their obsession with media to brave their way through and accomplish the many quests for the keys. The bad guys are a rival company, the generically titled Innovative Online Industries, led by no-good adults that use their might and money to beat the game. Ben Mendelsohn plays the evil CEO of IOI, who is so obsessed with buying up ad space in OASIS that he has to be coached on John Hughes movies to best our heroes. And yes, that is a requirement of cool in such a setting, where the top players can rattle off geek trivia on everything from the motorcycles of Akira to the Easter eggs in Atari games.
Over half the movie takes place in the computer-generated setting of the OASIS, and it’s certainly a sight to behold. All of the motion-captured performances and elaborate set pieces transcend the uncanny valley so much there are a few deliberate attempts to pull it back and remind you that this is a video game. Little touches, such as the large eyes of the rebel user Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) or the glitching gravity of Parzival’s hair, add to the fantasy of the world not being entirely perfect. For as frenetic as the action mounts and dazzling as the effects become, the virtual world always feels grounded enough that there clearly seem to be rules to this game and not just a random slather of geek bullet points without context. It’s not merely a blind cash-in of references.
But when the film does decide to show off its geek cred, it’s a pop-culture bonanza. In-game items are given wonderfully dorky identities; a Rubik’s Cube that can turn back time is referred to as the Zemeckis Cube and plays a few notes from Back to the Future upon activation. The quest eventually leads the heroes into a virtual version of Kubrick’s The Shining, holding the extraordinary level of excitement and hilarity of seeing your best friend watch your favorite movie for the first time. The titular robot from The Iron Giant makes his return to the big screen after 19 years, playing a crucial role in the film’s obligatory climactic battle. The music even gets in on the gushing, shifting melodies to the Godzilla theme, for example, once Mechagodzilla enters the film. And you could spend all day freeze-framing every shot in the OASIS to pluck out every character, from Hello Kitty to Master Chief.
Concerning changes from the book, most of what I noticed was a rearrangement of character interactions, shifting of references, and doing away with smaller scenes that better defined the world but slowed down the pacing. Ultimately, I think the core appeal and focus of the book remains for the many changes made. Consider that the screenplay was penned by the original author, Ernest Cline, and by Zak Penn, an accomplished superhero screenwriter who is as much of a geek as Cline. And though Spielberg reworks the story to fit many of his Spielberg-isms, including a chaotically gorgeous chase, his methods of roaring special effects, traditional adventure, and general geekery are a style well suited for Cline’s work.
There are many ways one could digest Ready Player One. It could be labeled as hypocritical for being a story about an evil corporation trying to profit off nostalgia when Warner Bros. is accomplishing that same goal in making the movie. It could be seen as an unoriginal homage picture attempting to be the ultimate fanfiction crossover, leeching off the success of those that came before it. It could even be labeled as a tone-deaf dystopian tale that is more interested in who wins the OASIS than how anyone can still breathe with that much pollution. But it seems the most apparent intent of Cline, Penn, and Spielberg was to have a ball with a Roger Rabbit–style buffet of their inspirations, spun through the quest of an unlikely hero besting the best. It’s not every day at the cinema when I get to see a Gundam fight Mechagodzilla or the DeLorean outrun a dinosaur. Spielberg’s direction proves that he knows how to not only weave these aspects into a story but make them sing with the genuine excitement I wanted out of the mashing of media.
The film is by no means a flawless tribute to pop culture, held back from greatness by its missing components of faithful construction and a questionable use of old adventure tropes. It’s also sure to garner some sourness for its quick-stop representation of characters that will be seen for some as more outdated than the references. But for what ultimately amounts to a glorified geeky Easter egg hunt, Ready Player One has more than enough colorful craic to turn a jaded pop-culture junkie into a kid again.