WHAT’S THE DEAL: Steven Spielberg adapts Ernest Cline’s celebrated New York Times bestseller for the big screen, in which trailer-park teen Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) captures the attention of the world with his quest to win the ultimate prize in a competitive, no-limits virtual-reality utopia in the year 2045.
WHY SEE IT: I’ll confess right now that I have not read Ernest Cline’s book. I started to read it a few years ago, then put it aside in anticipation of Spielberg’s take on it; I did not want to watch the film, make constant comparisons to the book, and ultimately find disappointment at every turn. That choice worked in my favor, as I had no concern for any lack of references that did not make the final cut. In fact, I was overjoyed at how many ’70s and ’80s movie, TV, music, lines, and other nods that I could identify. I am the target audience for this pop-culture deep dive, as I grew up in those two decades and was absolutely immersed in what ends up onscreen. The overall READY PLAYER ONE story has a whimsical, WILLY WONKA vibe to it; it’s a magical, ’80s-peak Spielberg pop performance, a fun, meta exercise in which the iconic director — himself a pop-culture punchline at times — gets to tweak his own movies and their cultural impact for an aging and nostalgic, self-aware generation of moviegoers. Vehicles, costumes, logos, and the likes of MAD MAX, BACK TO THE FUTURE, BATMAN ’66, THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY, THE SHINING, AKIRA, BUCKAROO BANZAI, Joust, Space Invaders, Atari, Joy Division, Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pops, Monty Python, Rush’s 2112, King Kong, MechaGodzilla, and even Ray Harryhausen’s Cyclops from THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD made me constantly smile throughout the whole film — worth it for those nods (and many more like them) alone.
THE FLICK FLACK: While Spielberg’s take on READY PLAYER ONE is a pop-culture Easter Egg paradise, it suffers from what I like to call SUCKER PUNCH Syndrome (a nod to director Zack Snyder’s box-office misfire) — low emotional stakes in a virtual reality world. Snyder’s fantasy fell flat whenever his characters would battle for their lives in dream sequences because the audience was not required to feel any concern for their actual safety, which wasn’t grounded in reality. Similarly, in READY PLAYER ONE, most of the action that takes place in the OASIS has zero or minimal real-world consequences. Like any video game in which you lose or die, you just take off your goggles and gripe, hit reset, or reach for another quarter. Wade does find himself in real-world jeopardy by the end of this film, but it still feels light, and most of the big-picture action sequences leading up to these more significant stakes rely on a less rewarding win-or-lose emotional hook. I felt like I was watching the chaos of the Wachowski-directed SPEED RACER at times, and that’s not a compliment.
NOTABLE NOTES: There has been much conversation about the pop-culture references that ended up in the READY PLAYER ONE movie and the ones that did not, despite featuring prominently in the book. Many of those final onscreen choices align with the ease of licensing characters and titles that are Warner Bros. (the studio distributing the film) properties. Other choices have to do with more common pop-culture familiarity (such as a WARGAMES scenario in the book that is swapped out for an immersive sequence that takes place inside THE SHINING) for those who did not grow up in the ’80s. Even Steven Spielberg can have a tough time wrangling certain licenses, and also for the sake of streamlined storytelling, many references are name-checked instead of seen. One example of a reference that works better named than visualized is the Millennium Falcon. We all know what the Falcon is, so it was more effective to simply hear the name of the famed STAR WARS spaceship in the context of the scene.
Then read more of my Famous Monsters-related pieces, ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT-related tales and interviews, see cool vintage movie lobby cards, and much more!