Ready Player One is a dazzling spectacle of empty nostalgia and regret

I cry at movies.

Every movie. For every reason.

I cry in sad scenes, and I cry in happy ones. I cry when a character is selfless, or heroic, or honorable, and I cry when someone is betrayed, and I cry when babies are born and I cry when people die. I cry when Fievel’s dad jumps off the cat to find his son, and I cry when Aragorn whispers, “for Frodo,” and I cry when Rose promises to never let go, and I cry when Beth dies, and I cry pretty much every time Dominic Toretto growls the word “family.”

So it’s not surprising that I cried while watching Ready Player One. Because that’s what I do. I cry at movies.

But this time, the reason for the tears was unprecedented for me, and not in a good, cathartic, crying-during-the-fight-scenes-in-Wonder-Woman kind of way.

This time, I was crying because what I was seeing unfold on screen, the actions the movie was trying to get me to root for, felt so profoundly wrong.

The scene: the final, climactic battle in the OASIS, the virtual reality world in which the bulk of Ready Player One takes place. Our hero, Parzival (the avatar for the movie’s protagonist, Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan), and the scrappy group of gamer friends he has collected throughout the movie, have taken their final stand against IOI, the multimillion-dollar corporation that wants to gain control of the OASIS in the hopes of monetizing it even more than they already have.

As Parzival and the virtual army he has raised charge into battle, his friend Aech suits up as the much-anticipated avatar that has been teased throughout the entire movie: the Iron Giant. And when the two armies collide, the Giant lunges into the fray, stomping on enemies and blasting them into oblivion with its eye lasers.

The iron Giant charging into battle in Ready Player One. Photo credit: Warner Bros.

It’s meant to be a rousing moment, stirring emotions that are both familiar and invigorating in the audience. This is Ready Player One’s “for Narnia,” its “now for wrath, now for ruin, and the red dawn,” its “they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom.” It’s a moment of triumph, of good pushing back against evil in the face of overwhelming odds, of the underdogs rising up to stand united against The Man.

But as I watched the Iron Giant charge into battle, decimating its enemies, instead of triumph, I felt an almost profound sense of loss.

Visually, the scene is stunning, the Iron Giant perfectly rendered in gorgeous detail (if there is one piece of well-deserved, completely unqualified praise I can give Ready Player One, it is that it is a visual marvel).

But in its haste to throw as many touchstones from the past onto the screen as possible, Ready Player One had cut the legs out from under the very nostalgia it was trying to evoke.

The Iron Giant meets Hogarth in 1999’s The Iron Giant. Photo credit: Warner Bros.

For those unfamiliar with Brad Bird’s 1999 animated masterpiece, The Iron Giant is a film about a giant robot from outer space who befriends a young human boy, and, through their friendship, learns about compassion and selflessness. Throughout the film, it becomes clear that the Iron Giant itself is not merely a robot, but a sentient being, who, despite his militaristic programming, chooses a nonviolent path. “I am not a gun,” the Giant proclaims as he becomes more self-aware – a line meant to underscore the tragedy and violation later, when, toward the film’s climax, the Iron Giant’s initial programming overrides his personality and he goes on a destructive rampage, nearly destroying a nearby town.

Seeing the Giant blast apart buildings and vehicles in The Iron Giant is meant to be deeply upsetting, which makes it all the more poignant when he is ultimately reminded that, “You don’t have to be a gun,” and saves the town in a stunning act of self-sacrifice. As he flies off, claiming his chosen identity once and for all, an earlier line plays over the scene, driving home the film’s theme of, “You are who you choose to be.”

The Iron Giant choosing his destiny in the 1999 film. Photo credit: Warner Bros.

This is the context for the character of The Iron Giant. This is the story that the audience is meant to recall when they see the Giant appear in Ready Player One, the nostalgic memory that is supposed to be stirred by the images on the screen.

Except, Ready Player One doesn’t seem to care about that story. As the Iron Giant stomps around the battlefield, it is clear that Ready Player One means for the viewer to completely divorce the character from its original context — which means that, despite Ready Player One‘s nostalgia-fueled promotional campaign, the film doesn’t truly care about nostalgia, since nostalgia can’t exist without context. Nostalgia is a sense of fondness tied to something from the past, and it’s impossible to feel fondness for something without considering the emotions you felt when you first saw it, and the environment in which those emotions existed.

When Ready Player One swept its camera over the Iron Giant laying waste to IOI’s forces on the battlefield, I could feel myself being prodded to rejoice in my memories of The Iron Giant, but at the same time, asked to disregard the entire message of the original movie. “Remember this?” Ready Player One seemed to ask, while simultaneously hoping that I would forget that the very thing it was asking me to remember rests heavily on the idea that the Giant being used as a weapon is a tragedy.

This is the inherent paradox of Ready Player One. It is a film about appreciating pop culture in which none of the characters seem to truly care about why that pop culture exists or what it has to say. It is a film about exploring a man’s passions, in which no one seems legitimately passionate about anything. It is a film pitting fandom against gatekeepers (“A fanboy knows a hater when he sees one,” is an actual line that is uttered by our hero with zero irony at one point) in which fandom is defined not by finding joy in a thing, but by extensive knowledge of its most arcane trivia – the very essence of gatekeeping. It is a film about nostalgia that wants bonus points for its dozens (hundreds?) of Easter eggs, while secretly hoping its audience doesn’t actually remember or care about the original properties it’s pulling from.

Parzival prepares to race in the DeLorean from 1985’s Back to the Future. Photo credit: Warner Bros.

It’s not altogether surprising that the film adaptation of Ready Player One would focus so heavily on the minutia of fandom rather than the heart. Both iterations of Ready Player One rely heavily on trivial knowledge standing in for actual appreciation. In the book, the narrative is littered with lists upon lists of movies, albums, TV shows, video games, and artists from the 1980s, all in service of a worldwide virtual scavenger hunt for an “Easter egg” that will entitle the winner to inherit the empire of deceased multi-billionaire tech mogul James Halliday. These items are rarely given any context or emotional significance in the text itself; the characters are merely demonstrating their encyclopedic knowledge of Halliday’s fandoms to one-up one another and solve the puzzles Halliday has hidden within the OASIS.

It’s important to note that the only character in the book who actually cares about the pop culture constantly referenced within its pages is Halliday himself – a character who is dead from the start. The living characters who propel the narrative see the fictional worlds that felt so real to Halliday as merely a means to an end. They proudly recite lines to old movies and swap cheat codes for early arcade games, not because they actually seem to get any true enjoyment out of any of it beyond the momentary thrill of competitive one-upsmanship, but because Halliday once enjoyed these things, and Halliday is the key to half a trillion dollars.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) suits up to enter the OASIS in Ready Player One. Photo credit: Warner Bros.

It’s sadly fitting, then, given Ready Player One’s clinical approach to the pop culture it claims to be celebrating, that none of its characters seem to care much about James Halliday, the person. His soul is reduced to what feels like a Wikipedia entry on ‘80s pop culture, his life catalogued as a reference text to win his money, his personhood usurped by the technological fantasyscape he created. This dehumanization of Halliday bleeds into the contest to follow in his footsteps; players smugly dissect his passions, casting aside the heart of the movies and songs he loved to pick at their bones, scavenging for trivia, combing through the corpse of who he was and taking only what they feel they can use.

Too harsh? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. For a book that is ostensibly a love letter to pop culture, there is very little love for its subject matter explored within its pages. Which made it an interesting property to adapt for Steven Spielberg, a filmmaker whose oeuvre is defined by optimism and a keen sense of wonder.

To be sure, Spielberg does manage to improve on his source material. Ready Player One was always a story better suited to film than text — reading song lyrics isn’t nearly as thrilling as hearing them play over a scene, and reading a list of avatar names isn’t half as fun as actually seeing characters moving through the OASIS as Hello Kitty and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. From beginning to end, Ready Player One is bursting with visual and auditory Easter eggs (a recurring reference throughout the film is the Back to the Future trilogy, and I loved hearing a few subtle Silvestri nods tucked into the score), making the film into a treasure hunt for the audience almost as much as it is for the characters.

Parzival and Aech in Ready Player One. Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Spielberg also tightens up the narrative quite a bit, taking some liberties with the book, to be sure, but almost always for the better (two of the challenges in the novel are simply having the characters recite every line from a couple of Halliday’s favorite movies, which were wisely swapped out in the film for actual puzzles to solve and physical challenges to overcome — much more entertaining than subjecting the audience to Tye Sheridan’s Matthew Broderick impersonation, I would imagine). The pacing is quick and the setpieces are exciting, creative, and visually engaging. As a result, while most of the logic propping up the plot is shaky, the majority of the characters are poorly defined, and the world-building and stakes suffer from an almost shocking lack of self-awareness, at least it’s entertaining.

But where Spielberg truly puts his personal stamp on Ready Player One is not in the dazzling spectacle or the breakneck pacing, and it’s not even in its plucky ensemble of (mostly) teenage heroes, but in the character of Halliday himself (played with an endearing shyness by Mark Rylance). As much as the book disregards Halliday’s humanity, Spielberg embraces it, and it is in his scenes that the film comes closest to being grounded or substantive. While most of the film’s characterization is (often problematically) superficial, Halliday is richly imagined as a man looking back on his legacy with regret and longing; a man whose final missive to the world was singularly focused on the mistakes of his past, and his wish that he had focused his attention on the people who mattered most to him rather than the work he left behind.

Parzival and James Halliday (Mark Rylance) in Ready Player One. Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Whether Halliday represents Spielberg reflecting on his own legacy, or merely Ready Player One’s hastily shoehorned message to not let our obsession with escapism rob our lives of meaning, is up to the viewer, as the film never finds its thematic footing well enough to truly clarify what Spielberg was trying to say. The nuanced, reflective moments with Halliday exist in jarring tension with frenetic scenes of stunning bombast, Halliday’s posthumous pleas to learn from his mistakes and embrace what makes us human constantly warring with trappings that urge us to disregard context, celebrate escapism, and only concern ourselves with the superficial.

Ready Player One is undeniably entertaining, a world-spanning adventure filled with spectacular imagery and a constant roller coaster of thrills. But it is also a film that isn’t quite sure what it wants to say — about the past, about pop culture, about technology, or about humanity — and in its reluctance to truly commit to any sort of substantive themes, it winds up coming across as muddled and contradictory. It’s a film that is fun to watch but frustrating to think about, a cake made entirely of frosting, spinning the audience up into a sugar-filled frenzy before realizing there is nothing to bite into underneath.

It’s not that I believe all films have to have an Important Deeper Meaning in order to have merit. There are plenty of films that are both a rollicking good time and have absolutely nothing to say, and that’s totally fine. My problem with Ready Player One is that it felt like it did have something it wanted to say, but never fully decided on what it was. Which is a shame, with such a promising premise in the hands of a true master like Spielberg.

Then again, as Halliday learned all too well, even the best craftsmen don’t always get it right.

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