I went into Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One with a lot of skepticism. Although I’m a huge fan of the legendary director, the source material was dodgy (great structure but prone to eye-rolling nostalgic diatribes) and the marketing kept seizing on the countless references to other media rather than promoting its own story. Thankfully, the finished feature has a more direct line of sight on what it wants to say and how it wants to say it. Although the movie certainly has no shortage of Easter eggs when it comes to beloved characters from movies, TV, and video games, those characters function more as a milieu rather than the point of Ready Player One. If anything, the movie wants you to craft your own story rather than getting lost in someone else’s.
In the year 2045 in Columbus, Ohio, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is an orphan who, like pretty much everyone else on a planet ravaged by climate change and poverty, spends their time in the VR landscape of the OASIS. Going by the handle Parzival, Wade and his friend Aech (Lena Waithe) are “Gunters”, hunting for three keys that will lead to an egg left by OASIS co-creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance). The egg will give the finder half-a-trillion dollars and control of the OASIS. Although Parzival works alone, he’s working against the remaining gunters (most have quit in the five years since the challenge was announced) and, more ominously, the IOI corporation led by the nefarious Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who wants to turn the OASIS into an ad-filled dystopia. Wade is also up against the beautiful and mysterious fellow gunter Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who has her own designs for the OASIS.
There’s a lot going on in Ready Player One and you can feel the movie straining against all the exposition it has to carry. There are moments where facts are even repeated twice for some reason like the fact that Wade’s parents are dead. But Spielberg manages to handle these clunky moments by taking full control of the OASIS. Although some viewers will certainly go frame-by-frame to catch all of the Easter eggs, Spielberg rarely goes out of his way to call attention to these references. Instead, he lets them all blend together, and while there’s certainly some punctuation like Parzival’s DeLorean or Aech’s The Iron Giant, these aren’t the point of the movie.
Rather than a nostalgia parade or a chorus of “memba berries”, Spielberg is far more interested in a protagonist who has given his life to studying the life of another because his own is so empty. Wade doesn’t have much, but he knows every aspect of Halliday’s history. That’s a little weird that Wade probably knows more about Halliday than his own parents, but Halliday left the records and a purpose. Although the movie never questions the obsessions of fandom (and it’s clear that above all else, Wade is a fan of Halliday), it does ask where that fandom ultimately leads. When the script includes the line, “A fanboy can always tell a hater,” it’s a record scratch moment not just because of the noxious sentiment, but because the larger movie isn’t interested in those divisions. It’s not about “Who’s the biggest fan?” but what you do with that fandom.