“Ready Player One” goes hard in the paint with the 1980s nostalgia, theatrical eye candy for any and every pop culture geek from Hill Valley, California to Shermer, Illinois. The story, however, takes place in dystopian Columbus, Ohio in the year 2045, where, for the most part, the real world is secondary to a fictionalized one.
In the Steven Spielberg-directed movie opening today, protagonist Wade Watts (played by Tye Sheridan) is obsessed, just like millions of others, with the OASIS, a virtual reality universe that he says is, “The only place that feels like I mean anything.” The world in 2045 is essentially in chaos: Global warming has kicked in, social and economic disparity has widened. Watts, an orphan, lives with his aunt in The Stacks – slums made up of stacked mobile homes.
In the OASIS, Watts is Parzival, his Delorean-driving avatar, with the sole mission to find the OASIS’ hidden Easter egg, planted by its late creator James Halliday and Watts’ hero. When Parzival cracks Halliday’s code and finds the first of three keys to unlock the egg, he instantly becomes a celebrity and simultaneously a target.
“Ready Player One” flies high on the action sequences and 80s pop culture references. A bulk of the film’s best moments hinge when the characters, vehicles and locations pop up, including a few nods to Spielberg’s own productions. The OASIS is literally the only place where a Jurassic Park T-Rex and King Kong can collide over a New York City racetrack, or you can climb Mount Everest with Batman – the user’s imagination is its only limitation.
On its face, the OASIS is mega fun, but of course there is an underlying message of “the real world is the only place you can get a decent meal,” that comes off contrived – can you blame people for wanting to escape a world that Watts describes as: “Reality is a bummer”?
Even the characters appear more interesting in their avatar form. Watts befriends Art3mis (or Samantha, played by Olivia Cooke), Aech (or Helen, played by Lena Waithe), Daito (or Toshiro, played by Win Morisaki) and Sho (or Akihide, played by Philip Zhao) in the OASIS. The main villain, Nolan Sorento, head of operations of a rival company who employs players solely to seek the Easter egg, is paper-thin throughout the film; TJ Miller’s I-R0k, hired as Sorento’s OASIS hitman, was a scene-stealer and a far more enticing bad guy.
But don’t let the lack of character depth deter you from catching “Ready Player One.” There’s a lot to glean from this action-flick even on its face value: It’s a sci-fi throwback that presents nuggets of nostalgia in a high-flying melting pot of a movie. “Ready Player One” is a cinematic ride fit for every type of pop culture nerd, past and present.