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It’s hard to imagine a movie where the plot hinges on 1980s nostalgia being directed by anyone other than the man responsible for creating plenty of that nostalgia, Steven Spielberg. From the thrilling action sequences in Ready Player One to the perfectly executed flirtatious quips, we feel we’re watching a great musician play his greatest hits. And everybody else’s. Nearly every pop-culture reference from the Reagan era—including Marty McFly’s DeLorean, the A-Team van, and Monty Python’s holy hand grenade—pops up in this wild Tron-meets-Willy-Wonka dystopian tale.
I use the description “dystopian” loosely. While the future of teenager Wade Watts, aka Parzival (Tye Sheridan), isn’t exactly bright (and includes plenty of time in virtual reality shades), it’s a lot less disturbing and violent than those of his genre comrades like Katniss Everdeen.
In the year 2045, Wade, like most of the rest of the population, lives in abject poverty in towers of trailer homes known as “stacks.” The good news is he and his friends don’t have to fight each other to survive. Except, that is, when they want to in the seemingly endless role-playing world they use to escape their troubles—an international video game phenomenon known as the OASIS. And thanks to the last will and testament of the game’s trillionaire creator James Halliday (a phenomenal Mark Rylance), one lucky player has the chance to make the real world pretty good too. All he has to do is solve clues from Halliday’s past to find three keys that unlock the door to controlling interest in his company.
While Spielberg may have a reputation for leaning left, it’s clear from the changes he made to Ernest Cline’s best-selling novel that he was committed to creating a crowd pleaser for, well, crowds. Cline’s book devoted tedious amounts of time to grating lectures on climate change and eighth-grade-level diatribes against organized religion. While your standard-issue evil corporation fills the role of the movie’s bad guy, its aims are too generic and nonsensical to feel like any serious anti-capitalist messaging. Mostly it just seems like Spielberg needs imposing adults for the kids to rail against.
What’s more, he pointedly ditches the liberal, atheist proselytizing of the book in favor of sly jokes that audiences on all sides of the aisle can enjoy. For example, rather than blaming climate change or any other current hot topics on the conditions Wade and his friends live in, as the book does, Spielberg has it all come about from “corn syrup droughts” and “bandwidth riots.” Not only are these subjects unlikely to get anyone’s dander up, they’re also a far cleverer commentary on where present-day America’s failings really lie.
That said, there’s a downside to Spielberg sticking so close to an ’80s script. Namely, that kids’ movies had a lot more profanity back in the day. Goonies, E.T., Adventures in Babysitting—all these favorites from my childhood shock me with their dialogue when I go back and watch them now. Though Ready Player One at least benefits from the more appropriate modern designation of PG-13, many parents won’t appreciate that a movie that should be perfect for all ages includes so much bad language, including an F-bomb.
If there’s any other major complaint, it’s that as diverting as the movie is, as a viewer you get a sense that it could have been more. Had Spielberg followed his story’s advice and spent a little more time in the real world with real people rather than dazzling our eyes with the CGI spectacles and pop-culture throwbacks in OASIS, Ready Player One might have been one of those films today’s kids reflect on fondly 30 years from now. As it stands, the movie is, like its central conceit, just a place to forget our problems and have fun for a couple of hours. But at least, for once, it’s fun the whole country can have together.