Steven Spielberg is the dream director for the film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One. He’s also arguably a terrible choice for the near-future cotton candy dystopia of a puzzle quest across a virtual landscape of pop culture ephemera. Cline’s crummy book is a mash note to the mass entertainment landscape of the nineteen-eighties, much of which Spielberg shaped, either directly or as a mighty influence.
It’s been a creative lifetime since Spielberg operated as that melding of narrative mastery and brand savvy. His own distant history is clearly what informed his decision to take on the project, and he’s taken every opportunity to explain his view of the film as a respite from the Oscar-friendly historical dramas that he’s spent the last decade presiding over from a canvas chair with “DIRECTOR” screen-printed across the back. Spielberg knows how to make Ready Player One, and he paces the film with the assurance of muscle memory. But he also lacks either a passion for the geek culture it wallows in or the stomach to pass judgment on the intellectual emptiness of sweeping bygone art up like a pile of glittering casino chips.
In the film, Tye Sheridan plays Wade Watts, a young man living in the impoverished misery of a trailer park so overpopulated that the undesirable domiciles are stacked up like drunkenly-placed Jenga blocks. Like most in the world, he finds escape within the immersive field of digital play known as the Oasis, a creation of entrepreneurial coder James Halliday (played wonderfully, of course, by Mark Rylance). Upon his death, Halliday announced a treasure hunt within the virtual world. Whoever solved the various riddles and challenges would inherit the trillion dollar platform.
Cline funneled his own obsessions into the pages of the story, and Spielberg does a remarkable job of filling the frame with familiar figures and mementos from a wide swath of films, television shows, and video games. Not since The Lego Movie has a film offered such a compelling reason to stand up and applaud the legal teams who sorted through the tangled complexities of licensing rights. The film moves briskly and confidently enough to help avoid a devolution into mere reference spotting. There is arguably only one instance when the film plunges deeply into a singular preceding pop touchstone. The sequence avoid indulgence because it also represents Spielberg at his most obviously engaged, likely because it’s servicing his own fandom by paying tribute to a favorite director he’s already honored onscreen at least once before.
In Spielberg’s hands, Ready Player One is enjoyable, but it’s also uneven. Some of that is because the shortcomings of the source material can’t be entirely shaved away. There are problems that belong solely to the film, though, such as instances of flat humor, a lack of emotional heft, and several performances that are lacking (Sheridan, most notably, but also, I am pained to note, Lena Waithe). For the spectacle flung onto the screen, the film feels like it’s exactly what Spielberg essentially admitted it is: a diversion. He’s interested in finding out if he can still zip out a goofy fun adventure, but not all that concerned about seeing if he can still make a movie like this into something that has greatness in its frames.