To call Ready Player One superficial is irresponsible because that adjective has the word “super” in it. So Ready Player One is, at best, “ficial.” Derivative to the point of hubris and possessed of a downright Nicolas Cage-ian amount of self-serious, groan-provoking dialogue, this macro-budgeted videogame cinematic would be outright dismissible were it not for its director, Steven Spielberg, who surely couldn’t have actually intended the film’s narcissistic message. Right?

If you don’t know, Ready Player One was a book written by Ernest Cline, who once wrote a slam poem in which he declared “I shall be the quintessential Nerd Porn Auteur.” That is real. He said that. And now Steven Spielberg directed his nerd pornography. Obviously, this isn’t the literal nerd pornography Cline claimed he would one day auteur, but it is absolutely no less masturbatory.

The film’s premise is introduced and described with the gentle grace of Ikea assembly instructions. In the near future, people spend most of their lives in a virtual reality world called the OASIS. The guy who invented the OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), left a quest for users after he died. If they find three keys by deciphering clues involving pop culture of the 1980s, they get control of the entire trillion-dollar OASIS empire. Hey, do you think that an average nerdy white boy from Ohio could possibly be the special chosen one who completes the quest? Or did you not know that Ernest Cline was born in Ohio?

Special Chosen White Boy, Wade (Tye Sheridan), goes by the username Parzival while piloting his avatar in the OASIS, because all Special White Boys have a huge King Arthur boner. He teams up with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who is an anime-eyed manic pixel dream girl inside the OASIS; outside the OASIS, she’s a hideously deformed, physically repellant woman. Just kidding! Samantha, the real-world lady behind Art3mis, is expectedly gorgeous despite her “disfiguring birthmark,” which is actually really cool and looks like Bowie on the cover of Aladdin Sane. Wade and his friends team up to thwart an evil corporation trying to gain control of the OASIS, leading to a climactic orgy of CGI during which you will notice pop culture characters from two vastly different properties sharing the screen together. “Neat,” you will say. Or maybe you won’t.

Ready Player One’s explicit, repeated message is a command to disconnect from technology and enjoy “real life” more. That’s what this huge special effect spectacle wants you to do: not pay as much attention to technology. Instead of this inane aphorism, what Ready Player One offers is a towering megalith of self-absorption. Why should the youth of today, who are clearly the intended audience here, give two shits about references to pop culture properties that people in their 30s and 40s loved? Ready Player One is the saddest, most reductive use of other people’s creativity; instead of incorporating influences into something new, it literally rolls out the old and says “Hey, you guys remember how good (insert property here) was?” No, Ernest, most people younger than you don’t know what the hell a Madball is. Nor should they!

Ready Player One is a movie about a guy who made himself a coffin out of culture (Halliday’s OASIS) that is, itself, a sad cultural coffin for a very specific set of white boys raised in Middle America. Believing that Spielberg would want his fans to use his works to dream and imagine new things—instead of myopically celebrating existing creative content—would have been so much easier if he weren’t talking mad nonsense on Netflix during his current press tour. Ready Player One is a horrifying cautionary tale disguised as a celebration that is written for young people about stuff only middle aged people care about. Oh, and TJ Miller is in it. Can we be done here?

Grade = D

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