Spielberg's Garish "Ready Player One" Evinces The Failings Of Nerd Culture

Why is it important to have something like this? Well, “King Kong” is my favorite movie and holding it makes me feel connected to the film, owning a part of the film. It should be in a museum, but instead it’s just right here in my basement.

Harry Knowles

In 2012, the first episode of now disgraced film “journalist” Harry Knowles’ web series unwittingly cut to the rotten core of nerd culture – the materialism and sexism hard-wired into self-proclaimed “geek elite.” That same DNA runs through Ernest Cline’s 2011 virtual reality-based novel Ready Player One and now Steven Spielberg’s exasperating big screen adaptation (co-scripted by Cline and Zak Penn).

Despite the monsoon of banal pop culture name-drops and garish computer-generated imagery that consumes the film, it contains one instance of true poetry. Its complete unraveling arrives on the back of a computer-generated oaf named Aech, based in part on one of Ernest Cline’s real-life friends.

Harry Knowles.

About an hour into a 140-minute running time, the character, a virtual-reality avatar, stumblebums his way through scenes from 1980’s “The Shining,” both character and film treating Stanley Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel like a McDonald’s PlayPlace. Wonder at the incredible re-creation of the hotel; wonder why anyone thought this was remotely respectful of the source material.

In truth, no art is beyond repurposing, and Spielberg was friendly with the “2001: A Space Odyssey” director before his death in 1999. Still, the sequence – which Kubrick almost certainly would have loathed – is the steeple of the church that is “Ready Player One,” dead-eyed parishioners worshipping at an altar of unthinking consumerism and senseless nostalgia. It’s a dystopia as alarming as that of John Carpenter’s time-honored “They Live,” except unknowing and largely thrill-less.

The movie centers on 18-year-0ld orphan Wade Watts (a listless Tye Sheridan) and his quest to win ownership of a ubiquitous virtual reality world known as the OASIS. It’s 2045, decades since the collapse of society, and Earth’s denizens escape the desolation of the real world the only way they can – by donning goggles and escaping into a digital fantasy land of mostly 1980s-based intellectual property. Among the innumerable pop culture icons who make brief, pointless appearances: Batman, Beetlejuice, Lara Croft, Freddy Krueger, Duke Nukem, RoboCop, Superman, and Jason Voorhees.

The late co-creator of the OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance, one of the pic’s few bright spots), left three virtual keys behind upon his death; find them and take ownership of the OASIS. This leaves young bucks like Wade (aka Parzival) to tangle with corporate bigwigs like Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) over Halliday’s proverbial golden ticket. With the help of several OASIS friends (Wade doesn’t have any real-world friends at the outset) including Artemis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe), our hero embarks on three seemingly unwinnable adventures brimming with pop culture artifacts.

The first adventure, an elaborate car chase, is sporadically impressive. The T-Rex from Spielberg’s blockbuster masterwork “Jurassic Park” makes a disappointingly inert appearance, but King Kong, the course’s final obstacle conjures fond memories of long-defunct Universal Studios attractions “Kongfrontation” and “King Kong Encounter.” (Parzival’s use of the “Back To The Future” DeLorean isn’t nearly as inspired.)

Action has forever been a strong suit of the filmmaker and, for a few minutes, the whoosh of iconic vehicles through a madhouse obstacle course feels all right.

Overkill, on the other hand, doesn’t suit Spielberg. Each of his four or five epoch-making summer movies left something to the imagination, be it the involuntary but ultimately successful absence of the shark throughout most of “Jaws” or the surprisingly low number of effects shots in “Jurassic Park.” Here, everything is on screen, resulting in a half-baked casserole of middling CGI (Parzival and company evoke the sorely artificial characters from 2001 bomb “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within”) and heaps of tired pandering to middle-aged nerds.

The movie’s man-child streak, where references function as nothing more than pacifiers, is even more bewildering in relation to Sorrento, its main villain. Where 2015’s decidedly corporate, Spielberg-produced “Jurassic World” managed to paint a picture of the push-pull between artistry and stock points, “Ready Player One” is so dense as to depict an army of intellectual property literally fighting a corporate overlord. It makes as little sense as a denouement that hastily attempts to rebrand the movie as pro-reality – as in, this virtual reality porn we clobbered you with the past two hours is only good in moderation!

The silver lining is that the movie is so inadvertently incisive as to the emptiness of nerdom that someday it might be viewed as an worthy document of the feedback loop of memes and YouTube reaction videos that’s become American culture. The presence of fallen comedian T.J. Miller’s voice as an OASIS bounty hunter is the movie’s essence – both white male toxicity incarnate and a regrettable reminder of things once enjoyed.

Steven Spielberg’s inner child has given us untold worlds of wonder. Now, it seems, the time has come to pay the piper.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: March 29, 2018
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Ernest Cline, Zak Penn
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, nudity and language)