Everyone loves crossovers! Who doesn’t get excited every time two to 10,000 pop culture characters of varying degrees of familiarity get stuffed into the same frames or panels and generate mechanical synergy for the amusement of fans and the enrichment of corporations? As a young teen collector of both Marvel and DC Comics I was bedazzled by the one-two punch of Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths, each of which tossed piles of IPs into dogpiles and let them take turns teaming up and punching each other into oblivion. This brilliant concept in apocalyptic storytelling wowed me at the time, but began losing steam over the decades as all the other annual Marvel and DC crossover events kept (and keep) producing diminishing returns for increasingly transparent financial cravings. Meanwhile in other media, we had the innovative novelty of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and mash-ups like Kingdom Hearts, Soul Calibur, and Super Smash Bros. We had obscurities like Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue, while the previous generation arguably had their own predecessor in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Despite the amount of behind-the-scenes wrangling involved, the method is simple: pick lots of famous faces that each have had tons of stories and years of character development dedicated to them, cultivated by their creators and successors with some combination of time and care; strip away everything from them but their outer shell and a one-line descriptor of their most superficial traits; throw everyone into an arbitrary arena; make them fight and fight and fight; then, profit. Hurray! It’s a crossover!
To those who love crossovers and other spectacles a la Battle of the Network Stars, by all means keep loving what you love. After a couple decades or more of them, they’re not an automatic draw for me.
And don’t get me started on the crossover’s close cousin, the whole “Easter egg” fetish that’s become a mandatory element of every geek-related product ever, to the point that viewers spend so much time expecting recognizable tokens and high-fiving each other for spotting them that they become the point of purchase and the only reason to pay attention. Some works are so oversaturated with Easter eggs, they’re less like a narrative and more like an extended Highlight for Children “Hidden Pictures” puzzle.
That brings us to Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, adapting the novel by Ernest Cline that I couldn’t bring myself to touch after reading a lacerating review of its nostalgic self-indulgence that gave me more than enough signifiers to tell me it was Not My Thing. As if that weren’t enough, someone on Twitter (I wish I could remember who or in which recent month) shared numerous excerpts from the novel that confirmed it’s entirelty about the hero name-checking, listing, and pumping himself up with his never-ending stream of collector callback consciousness. Unless someone wants to pay me to bypass my gut reaction, count me among the viewers who saw the movie but didn’t and won’t read the book.
Frankly, I only saw the movie because I knew friends or family would ask me about it. In their defense and to my surprise, I’ll give them this: Ready Player One was a lot less anathematic to me than The Big Bang Theory.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Tye Sheridan (from the excellent Mud and the not excellent X-Men: Apocalypse) is young gamer Wade Watts, living a Final Fantasy hero’s life among an entire civilization of gamers who routinely inhabit a complex, derivative VR universe called OASIS as an escape from the neglected landscape of 2045 America. A nation of quitters has let the waking world devolve into a pathetic panorama of trailer towers and grungy back alleys, all lined with lost souls wandering around with their blindered headsets and their Black Mirror portals and their other immersive devices that transport them to realms of pure graphics and filtered imagination.
Because it’s all about gamers, the heart of the plot is likewise a game. The genius inventor of OASIS (Mark Rylance from Bridge of Spies and Dunkirk) has passed away and, instead of a basic will and testament, left behind one last competition. Participants must undergo three quests for MacGuffin keys that unlock locks to the ultimate controls. The late Mr. James Halliday, who probably kept episodes of VH1’s I Love the ’80s on an infinite loop in his head at all times, of course hard-coded the environments and challenges to worship the era and its contents accordingly. Fortunately every child in 2045 have been raised to love the ’80s too, what with it being the only decade ever. Winner gets control of OASIS. All of it, hopefully including the massive staff that keeps these Galactus-sized Worlds of Warcrafts running and astonishingly bug-free.
Of course all the gamers want OASIS for themselves, as is that ’80s-flick archetype, the Evil Corporation, entertainingly embodied by Ben Mendelsohn from Rogue One and Churchill. Can the plucky teen hero and his amazing friends beat out the suited schemer and his underlings? And how many well-known cartoons, comics, Hollywood productions, video games, and other toyetic vehicles will they have to burn through before the day is saved?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Geek icon Simon Pegg pops up as Rylance’s former programming partner. Bomb-threat defendant TJ Miller (Deadpool, How to Train Your Dragon) is a sarcastic but creepy VR assassin. I don’t recognize the aunt that Wade lives with (Susan Lynch), but her cranky boyfriend is Ralph Ineson, a.k.a. the overbearing Puritan dad from The Witch. Lena Waithe, creator of Showtime’s The Chi, arrives later as a close personal friend.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but are not limited to:
- Corporations = bad, creator-owners = good
- HEY LOOK IT’S THAT ONE THING FROM MY CHILDHOOD
- Online appearances can and will deceive, but our hearts and souls will shine through sooner or later
- OH WOW I REMEMBER THAT, OH MAN IT’S BEEN YEARS
- The future will look awful and bleak if we do nothing for it
- DID YOU SEE THAT? I SAW THAT! I CAN’T BELIEVE THEY USED THAT!
- Games are fun but the offline world is also important
- DUDE I KNEW LIKE FOUR DIFFERENT THINGS IN THE BACKGROUND IN THAT SCENE
- Large birthmarks and other unusual distinguishing features are no big deal to those who like or love us
- THAT’S MY ENTIRE 12-YEAR-OLD TOYBOX UP THERE, DAWG!
- Video games encourage the development of many critical skills such as manual dexterity, reflexes, problem-solving, attention to details, patience and endurance of repetitious tasks
- BATMAN! JASON! CHOCOBO! COWBOY BEBOP! LET’S ALL KEEP SHOUTING PROPER NOUNS!
- Every single iota of pop culture has at least one fan out there who loves it to pieces no matter how awful it was at inception
- EXPLOSIONS! WOOOOOOOOO EXPLOSIONS!!!!!1!!
Nitpicking? The hardest part is buying a future in which teens are nostalgic scholars of 70- and 80-year-old works, which is comparable to millennials who love Bing Crosby tunes, own every issue of Look Magazine, and can recite endless minutiae about Fibber McGee and Molly. Maybe they’re out there, but they’re extremist minorities. In Cline’s vision it’s not just waking life on Earth that’s stalled; humanity’s collective drive to create, explore, and experience new worlds of wonder has been extinguished, replaced by a hivemind fixation on the same old things regurgitated again and again. That line of thought could’ve led to biting satire, but I’m not convinced that’s on the minds of either Cline or Spielberg. RP1 glorifies those “good ol’ days”, which of course makes Spielberg the ideal director for the material, and predicates its world-building on the vain assumption that what we and our parents cherished will always be cherished in perpetuity and to the exclusion of anything hailing from the forbidden land of The New. A modern-minded satire would’ve rejected that premise and demolished any arguments on the side of “it’s old, therefore it’s Good”.
Absent any such commentary, RP1 is, at best, geek comfort food. The effects artists cram in so many callbacks and throwbacks that we’re not given too many creations to call their own, very little for future generations to look back and think, “Hey, I remember that thing from Ready Player One!” It can be fun in limited doses, but over the course of two hours plus, the cumulative effect is like eating from a canister of sugar with a spoon.
On that primal, less grumpy geek level, a couple of character choices bugged me outright. Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant is among the best animated films ever, and RP1 captures none of that film’s depth. He has the same shape, a couple of his weapons, and a bit of sacrifice that turns out pointless by the end, but none of the antiwar/anti-violence themes inherent in his story, none of the inner arsenal that’s integral to his conflicting nature, and not a cameo from Vin Diesel as his original voice. In addition, after attending a 2015 convention in which co-creators Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale clarified that in no uncertain terms will there ever be any Back to the Future sequels, prequels, or reboots while they’re alive, I felt like RP1 exploited a crummy loophole to bring the DeLorean back to the big screen. At first I thought and hoped it was just a DeLorean minus Doc Brown’s modifications, but nope — the dashboard clearly contains all his timers.
Then there’s the main conflict between Teen Gamer Hero and Old Corporate Fogey. Evil corporations are nearly as overdone a villain as corrupt American governments. I liked Mendelsohn’s weaselly performance well enough, but I’m not convinced that his company IOI would be any more despicable as new owners of OASIS than, say, Amazon or Apple might’ve if they’d survived that far into Cline’s future. Sure, his employees are actually slaves, and their board of directors would probably insist on lousy storytelling choices and jacked-up prices. On the flip side, though, how do we know Wade has the competence to oversee the massive operations necessary to keep something of OASIS’ sizeup and running? How many employees to maintain, repair, and upgrade all those graphics? How much will that suffer if he lets the existing corporate structure collapse, along with payroll and benefits? Is OASIS magically self-sufficient? Can one teen seriously oversee the entire thing alone without replacing his brain with microscopic supercomputers? Would it be such a horrid thing for a film to admit that corporations sometimes exist for useful reasons not borne of greed?
Also, it’s utter codswallop that the film devotes so much run-time to the first two quests that they practically yadda-yadda the entire third quest and skip straight to its amazing colossal climax that’s essentially every Lord of the Rings extended warfare sequence reenacted using the contents of a Toys R Us catalog.
Also also, my theatrical viewing was uniquely marred by a poorly timed accident. During that fateful, final battle, just as one of Wade’s teammates shouts to the heavens, “I SUMMON THE POWER OF [spoiler]!” at that exact second our theater’s power went out. A few minutes later they turned everything back on, except the film had advanced an extra minute or two and proceeded to run for another minute without sound — spoiling both a moment of heroic triumph and a cameo from one of the most ridiculous ’80s toy lines ever — until the projectionist could rewind and resume from where we left off.
Distractions like that don’t help when you’re already fussing about a movie that nearly lost you in its first minute with its obvious choice of an opening oldie.
…wow, this all got very long. Do we have any space left to dwell on the laughable notion of any 2045 kids keeping deep-dive Atari 2600 trivia fresh in their minds? No? Fine.
So what’s to like? The good news is that most, possibly all of Cline’s original verbiage has been excised from the end results. Wade still narrates here and there in first-person, but with the name-checking severely curtailed. Now Wade sounds more like a competent, reasonable member of fandom instead of a nattering contestant on Beat the Geeks. Free from listing for lists’ sake, Ready Player One better lends itself to serving as the chassis for an average Spielberg thrill ride. If you liked his other films where little heroes beat overwhelming odds at top speeds, this is more of that. You’ll probably like it more than I did, but I still wouldn’t say I hated it. I just wish it hadn’t been so openly pandering for Pavlovian responses to pop-culture imagery on parade.
In fact, I loved one sequence in particular — the second key quest, which takes Our Heroes inside the haunting, meticulous vision of a particular ’80s film that I never, ever would’ve expected to see infiltrated by faux-anime intruders. The pacing and cinematography shift to completely different gears for the sake of a cinematic homage that’s blasphemous, faithful, and terrifyingly genius all at once.
Also, special commendation to Mark Rylance for a touching performance as OASIS creator James Halliday and his avatar Anorak. Halliday is a gifted programmer who wields an elephantine memory of vast working knowledge of a ridiculous number of fictional milieux, but finds himself hobbled by introversion and social awkwardness that keep him a bit detached from the comparatively “normal” folks who surround him. Halliday conceives OASIS not necessarily as a groundbreaking invention or a career choice, but as a fun thing to make for others to enjoy. In his few foreground scenes, Rylance plays Halliday with a delicate sensitivity, tentative in his every word and move, struggling to connect with others, ultimately doing so through OASIS — his most heartfelt expression of his large-scale love for people and playthings alike. I wish the film had been more about his quiet complexity and less about super awesome gaming cutscenes or brainstorming fodder for future news-site listicles called “Here’s a List of All the ‘Ready Player One’ Easter Eggs You Missed But We Caught Because We’re Smarter Than You and Also We Pirated a 4K Copy Before You Did So We Could Spend Months Freeze-Framing and Then Reverse Image-Searching All the Things”.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Ready Player One end credits, even though that would’ve been a logical Easter egg to end Easter Egg: The Motion Picture. Instead we get the usual mile-long list of visual effects artists, as well as the lengthy list of dozens of companies that let Spielberg borrow their intellectual properties “Courtesy of” themselves. Many were surprisingly cooperative, not just RP1’s own Warner Brothers or its subsidiaries such as New Line Cinema and DC Comics.