On the surface and throughout the trailers, Ready Player One looks like nothing more than a full-throttle mashup of various pop culture cornerstones, using the nostalgia of the '80s to make a fairly generic idea seem intriguing. In truth, that's exactly what Ready Player One is, but director Steven Spielberg found a way to let the charm shine through the clutter, delivering one of the most enjoyable movies of the last few years.
Based on the novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One follows a young man by the name of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) in the year 2045. The world is somewhat of a dystopian mess at this point, and the majority of the planet has retreated into a virtual reality world called The Oasis. The massive artificial space is the number one resource on Earth, and, following the death of co-founder James Halliday (Mark Rylance), sole ownership of the Oasis is up for grabs. Using Halliday's personal story and favorite pieces of pop culture history, users must search for clues and find the hidden Easter egg the creator left in the Oasis. The first to find it gets control of the Oasis.
Of course, an evil corporation called IOI, run by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), wants to win the Oasis so they can turn it from a game to a money-printing advertising space. With the help of his friends, Wade must find the Easter egg before Sorrento does so that control of both the Oasis and the real world can stay out of the wrong hands.
As the trailers indicated, there is no shortage of pop culture nostalgia crammed into this movie. From Mobile Suit Gundam to Kubrick's The Shining, every corner of nerdom is represented. It's honestly a bit overwhelming, but Spielberg pulls it off. His ability to extract the utmost charm from his actors (Olivia Cooke especially) allowed the heart and soul of young people fighting for a world that they love become the star of the film. Instead of feeling like you're watching a YouTube compilation of some old man's favorite movies and video games, you get to see relatable characters navigate a beautiful, often jaw-dropping universe, the likes of which have only existed in dreams.
While the film is a ton of fun, there are a few places where the story suffers, whether from a rush to get to the next exciting set piece, or a desire to make things too memorable. In the third act, there are multiple sequences and lines of dialogue that take a trope or a childish joke just one step further than they should. What could be perfectly compact scenes become moments that you make you scratch your head, wondering, "Did we really need that?"
There are also one or two points in the main storyline where certain characters arrive at a destination you didn't know they were heading toward, or develop deep relationships with one another, despite barely sharing the screen before that. You get the gist of what's happening, but an extra five or six minutes bridging a few of these scenes together could make a world of difference.
In the hands of a lesser director, this movie would have been an abysmal train wreck. It's easy to get lost in the nostalgia of it all and focus on surface, rather than what's inside. Spielberg has perfected this balance over the years, and that's evident in this movie, even if he stumbles at times.
Ready Player One has its flaws, but they aren't enough to get in the way of the ride taking place on screen. This blast from the past is definitely worth seeing in the theater, despite its shortcomings, and you'll likely head back for a repeat viewing or two before all is said and done.
Score: 4 out of 5 stars