I remain of the opinion that nostalgia is creative poison. It certainly has a place in the creative process, but the constant celebration and veneration of the past leads to artistic stagnation. I get it; the 80s were awesome unless you had AIDS or a mental illness. Ronny Reagan was in office, all the best movies were coming out, and pop music was tolerable. However, the more you dwell on the past, the less you grow and evolve. Like Deadpool and Robot Chicken the joke gets old really, really fast. There is no better tool for inspiration than nostalgia, but if you use it as a crutch for creativity, you are not creating a damn thing.
When I first heard about the book Ready Player One (RPO), it sounded like a perfect nightmare, and that was before I found out Will Wheaton was apparently a character. Seriously, the guy is more hated than Voyager and Discovery combined, and that is not taking into account his opinion of gun owners. That alone kept me light-years away from the story, more so as I learned about the narrative over time. I resigned myself to ignore the film adaptation until I heard Steven Spielberg was directing. After that, there was nothing that could keep me from buying a ticket.
The story of RPO is Willy Wonka meets Tron. There is this massively multiplayer online world called the Oasis that everyone plays and they are competing to find a set of three keys to gain control of the world and the fortune of its creator Halliday, played by Mark Rylance. The clues to complete the challenges and acquire the keys are in Halliday’s past and Wade, played by Tye Sheridan, has been searching for the solutions for five years. At the same time, the IOI Corporation is sending its employees into the Oasis with the goal of capitalizing on the game’s economic and societal value.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover RPO was not a laborious cringe-fest like the book. The celebration of nostalgia is there in many forms, but in ways that work for the story. Character avatars, props, and background elements play a role in the narrative. Everyone is obsessed with the past because they do not like the present and the story is more or less about how Halliday kept himself grounded in the past. Because he was incapable of interacting with others he created a world built on the foundation of nostalgia to interact with like-minded individuals. All the references are in service to this idea and do not weigh down narrative as pointless window dressing.
The only problem is Halliday’s story is a subplot. The challenges bring to light his character, but not enough is explored. The most we get is he has a one giant regret and acknowledges his personal shortcomings. There is also backstory of Halliday forcing his only friend out of the company and we do not get any more information beyond characters talking about it. That is where RPO caught my interest and it went nowhere. Exploring Halliday’s character would have given the film more meaning beyond little hints of what it is trying to say.
The rest of the movie is standard Spielberg stuff. You have the hero down on his luck, the comical super villain, and all the schmaltz that has come to characterize his work since Third Kind. You cannot deny his films are fun and RPO is a relative delight to watch. I say relative because it does not feel very fun all throughout.
The opening race challenge is a perfect example. It should have been exciting, but the lack of score drained the life from the scene. Intense visuals can only get you so far. It is not just a lack of score, but also a lack of soul. All this cool stuff is happening on screen and I did not feel anything. Maybe it is just me and my hatred for nostalgia, but there was a moment at the climax that should have made me happy beyond comprehension and I felt nothing. All this cool stuff on screen and it amounts to things happening.
It should be noted that the special effects and animation are well done. Motion capture can be difficult to translate given how humans do not move at 24 frames a second. My one gripe is the visual style makes everything and everyone look the same. It can be difficult to tell characters apart because they look like the same humanoid with different physical features. The art styles that define certain characters in their respective titles were ignored outright and you could not tell them apart. Tracer is not supposed to look like Chun-Li, neither is Jim Raynor and Master Chief. It would have been visually interesting if they looked like they do elsewhere.
So, Ready Player One is difficult to recommend. Though I struggled to find the emotional value of the film, I did not hate the experience. It was cool seeing characters I recognized crammed into one movie and it was not a nostalgia cringe-fest like the latter seasons of Robot Chicken or Pixels (God help us). It all comes down to the fact that Spielberg makes some of the most watchable films out there, even if they are boring or horrifying. If you have a free weekend and Annihilation is not playing anymore, get yourself a ticket.