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Tapping into nostalgia is Ready Player One’s biggest strength and weakness

 By Michelle Wheeler

March 31, 2018

There’s a whole branch of academia that studies the psychology of the movie-going experience. It has to do with the idea that putting a bunch of strangers in a room together and making them look at a larger than life screen while limiting their field of vision outside that screen under a cloak of darkness creates a singular, immersive, often transformative experience. Anyone who’s ever felt compelled to cheer or been brought to tears by a particularly moving scene in a movie theater knows what I’m talking about. Not every movie gets there, certainly, but the ones that do often get categorized as classics and blockbusters.

I bring this up because Ready Player One, in theaters this weekend, makes the most of that curious cinematic connection that allows strangers to seem like friends for a couple of hours.

Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts / Parzival courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Based on the 2011 book by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One is set in 2045, a not-too-distant future where most Americans spend most of their time in the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a virtual world created by James Halliday, a brilliant but eccentric pop-culture buff. The OASIS is now so successful that everything from public education to administrative jobs to dating and recreational time happens inside the program. After Halliday’s death, he reveals there is an Easter egg hidden deep within his virtual world, and the person who finds it will take over his shares and a controlling interest in the company. Even though a lot of regular life stuff still happens in the OASIS, Halliday’s contest essentially turned everyone inside the world into a gamer. The search for the egg has been going strong for five years, and no one has gotten close to finding it.

Wade Watts is a high schooler living in “the Stacks,” a run-down area of Columbus, OH where real estate became so scarce that people started stacking mobile homes on top of each other in a poor-man’s version of suburban high-rises. Wade is a loner who retreats to a secret hideout to spend as much time in the OASIS as possible, because it’s where he feels most like himself.

When Wade ends up winning one of Halliday’s challenges and lands on the Easter egg scoreboard – the first name to show up there since the game started – IOI, a competing “Big Tech” company, comes gunning for him, in the OASIS and the real world. The contest intensifies, and the lines between what’s real and what’s not get blurred.

Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts / Parzival and Olivia Cooke as Samantha Cook / Art3mis courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Ready Player One stands apart from other dystopian YA (Young Adult) stories because the OASIS allows people to escape the pretty crappy world they live in for a dream world where anything is possible. As Wade says, “People come to the OASIS for all the things they can do. But they stay for all the things they can be.”

Because OASIS creator James Halliday was a pop-culture buff, a child of the 80s, and a teen of the 90s, his world is chock full of references to the movies, TV shows, cartoons, and video games of those eras. That detail makes this story ripe for the big screen.

The movie is like a perfect storm of fandom with something for the movie nerds, the pop culture geeks, the gamers, and the bookworms. There are DeLoreans and Rubik’s Cubes and full re-creations of movies like The Shining. There are Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mortal Kombat characters. To win the challenges that lead closer to the winning egg, an OASIS player would have to be familiar with both Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the Atari 2600 game Adventure. For anyone with a connection to that golden age of nostalgia, there’s a level of enjoyment that comes from watching Ready Player One that has nothing to do with the characters or the story. Just keep showing the Iron Giant and playing Van Halen songs, and the crowd will keep cheering.

Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts / Parzival courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Tapping into the collective memories of the audience, however, turns out to be Ready Player One’s strength and its biggest weakness.

Scenes set in the OASIS are animated like the best video game cutscenes you’ve ever watched. They’re action packed, there are no limits to what the characters can do, and there are endless opportunities to pack in crowd-pleasing trivia. The scenes set in the real world are…less so.

Tye Sheridan as Wade is just not that compelling. The structure of the film relies on a lot of expository narration from him, and without him telling us – over and over – how obsessed he is with finding the egg, how scared he is of IOI (Innovative Online Industries), how much he values the friends he’s made in the OASIS, I don’t know that we’d understand him as a character from his performance. For all the visual gags the film includes, it errs on the side of telling instead of showing way too often when it comes to revealing character motivation and key plot points.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Many of the 80s movies that made it into the cultural lexicon – the ones directed by John Hughes, Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg (and we’ll come back to that) – aren’t beloved because they necessarily have the best craftsmanship. The directing and cinematography in those films are adequate, and they do what they need to do without being distracting, but it’s their heart and style and swagger that make them memorable. Those movies were downloaded directly into the nostalgia folder of your brain because they made you feel something. Ready Player One makes you feel something too, but it’s because it’s piggy-backing off those other things that made you feel something first. The fun of Ready Player One is in the details, which makes the big picture almost irrelevant.  

So let’s talk about Spielberg. I’d argue he considers the audience too much to be counted as a true auteur, but his ability and capability to please that same audience is indisputable. Whatever joy is gained from watching Ready Player One is culled from the sheer fun of it, and was put there specifically to spark joy in the viewers. For the right crowd, it’s the crowd-pleasing movie that ever pleased a crowd. And this is a Spielberg crowd. Spielberg knows this particular audience especially well, because he helped create them. 

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Ultimately, Ready Player One does a great job at tapping into memories of what was, for many people, a simpler and more innocent time. You’ll laugh, you’ll cheer, you’ll feel excited all over again by the things that once captured your imagination. You’ll realize you aren’t alone in all your nostalgia nerd glory because the people around you will be laughing and cheering at all the same things. High five a stranger in the lobby and don’t worry too much if you walk away not quite remembering any of the character’s names.

Star Rating: 3 out of 5  

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