Steven Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’ offers loving ode to pop culture, bungles thesis

Ready Player One
Jaap Buttendijk/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Before we see a single shot, Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” states its intentions through the irresistible synth sparks of Van Halen’s “Jump.” This film is a cotton-candy hodgepodge of in-jokes, a lovingly made pastiche that only seeks to make us smile.

And for the most part, it succeeds. Spielberg elicits an infectious sense of wonder that’s only topped by “Jurassic Park,” a genuine pathos missing from his late-career period pieces.

We find ourselves wide-eyed not at a towering CGI Brachiosaurus, but at a meticulously crafted CGI cyberscape — the OASIS, a virtual reality video game populated by those seeking reprieve from the dreariness of 2045 (2044 in the film’s eponymous source material by Ernest Cline). In the OASIS, players are represented by their avatars, which can be anyone or anything — from Lara Croft to Batman.

Within this world lies a literal Easter egg — a MacGuffin that grants its finder total control over the OASIS. For the gamer Parzival (Tye Sheridan), such control means economic and social mobility. The stakes are higher for revolutionary Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who seeks to topple the monolithic IOI corporation, its self-proclaimed “corporate asshole” Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and his thug i-R0k (T.J. Miller).

In the first act, we are led to examine, quite explicitly, how the OASIS’ avatars conceal an individual’s race, gender and class. But the film isn’t interested in such questions, answering them prematurely and without anything profound to say.

Ultimately, “Ready Player One” opts for an argument so astoundingly banal that its schmaltz proves harder to swallow than Spielberg’s most saccharine finales, limply commenting on its own shameless but sincere nostalgia. Spielberg might be the director who made us afraid to go into the water, but “Ready Player One” leaves us ankle-deep in its tepidly shallow message.

Regardless, we’re reminded why Spielberg is the best blockbuster director out there — hell, he practically invented the concept. “Ready Player One” kicks off with a jolting, kinetic car chase that’s as bonkers as a Tyrannosaurus running a DeLorean into the grips of King Kong.

And that’s exactly what happens. In this set piece, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński weaves the camera within, without and between the screeching metal collisions, creating artfully choreographed chaos.

Even more impressive, Spielberg lends his digital creations a surprising sense of weight and physicality. In his hands, a massive, lumbering CGI zombie convincingly thuds along. Many shots are filled to the brim with digital elements — a “Minecraft” reference here, an “Overwatch” reference there — but they’re never too distracting, our eyes always drawn to the main subjects of the shot and the emotional stakes therein.

In fact, the sheer volume of references and cameos never feels overwhelming or tiring, as each cameo proves more daring than the last. One scene in the second act is of particular note, transcending a mere cameo and becoming an homage so entertaining that it’s hard to believe that the finale will have any cards left to play — and yet it does.

But the fun of “Ready Player One” is mostly a credit to the filmmakers behind the scenes rather than to its lead. Tye Sheridan’s performance is merely workmanlike compared to Ben Mendelsohn’s scheming villainy or the impeccable charisma of Lena Waithe, who plays Parzival’s tinkering, machinist partner in crime.

T.J. Miller’s trademark nasal affect is as smarmy as ever, but it comes with an added sense of discomfort. Though Miller was cast long before sexual assault allegations against him emerged in December, his inclusion speaks to the unfortunate, continual employment of actors accused of sexual violence in Hollywood.

But the clear standout from the film is Mark Rylance as the mumbling, melancholy Steve Jobs analog, James Halliday, creator of the OASIS. Whether it’s Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” or Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” there isn’t a film that Rylance can’t steal.

If nothing else, “Ready Player One” sports enough copyright courtesies that anyone remotely familiar with pop culture of the last 30 years will walk away feeling a warm nostalgia. But the film best rewards the well-read viewer who, much like its characters, studies John Hughes and old Atari video games. In any other director’s hands, such a reliance on iconography could have felt cynical and focus group-engineered to rake in the big bucks.

But this is Steven Spielberg, having more fun than he’s had in years, and taking us along for the ride.

“Ready Player One” is currently playing at UA Berkeley 7.

Harrison Tunggal is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].