It is one of the most insubstantial movies made by Steven Spielberg in a long time, or ever. And I mean that in a good way. The best way.
I'll spare you the plot summary or production development. If bothering to read this, you know what's up. I will posit from the get-go that Ready Player One is not a science fiction story, as it offers little in dystopian commentary nor does it ever much hone-in intellectually on the possibilities of multi-media futurism. No, Ready Player One is an 'electronic fantasy' for youth, where escapism is in this case a literal premise governed by its own absurdist, internal reason of reference-realms within reference-realms practically ad infinitum, resulting in a fantasy about fantasy itself, as that which can only be navigated by way of the very creative logic that births fantasy in the first place.
By no means the first dramatization of virtual reality nor the first to elevate the video gaming experience (pop-culture in general) as an action aesthetic, Spielberg nonetheless maximizes these concepts to their fullest realization yet. Though, this isn't the first time he's dabbled. The Adventures of Tintin might in retrospect be considered a trial run of sorts, with the director let loose amidst a mo-cap world stylized in hyper-real cartoonism, and where he first went full-swing with entirely animated action kinetics. It made for an interesting experiment to see his unprecedented set-piece mechanics afforded total freedom from all things gravity and physical laws yet by the same token proved a bit too lite, almost abstract, the equivalent of merely reading a maestro's notes without ever hearing the music. The BFG -- underrated, in my opinion -- would follow next but in this instance testing Spielberg's ability to digitally environ a live actor with the aim of in-camera fidelity (more than he's ever tempted before, anyways) but without sacrificing the fairy tale whimsy.
Both examples however constitute worlds as singular realities on their own terms whereas Ready Player One varies in the obvious in-universe distinction between real and pixelated pretend. It's closest cousin, then, goes further back to 2002 with Minority Report. Hell, the relatively playful media technology war of 2045 Columbus, Ohio could almost serve as a 9-year spinoff backstory to the darker PreCrime law enforcement of 2054 Washington, D.C. In both films Spielberg plays set-piece juxtaposition games: Anderton interfacing with Agatha's precog vision as a means of hunting/evading alternate temporalities and -- virtual reality in place of spacetime actuality -- Samantha at once hiding in plain sight among IOI Sixers while, in Art3mis form, inching her way closer to the, ahem, "Orb of Osuvox".
Perhaps appreciating Ready Player One in the most ideal context is through its musical score. Alan Silvestri as a substitute for John Williams might at first seem like a missed opportunity in reuniting the longtime Spielberg-Williams collaboration with '80s nostalgia, except Williams has already enjoyed a heyday homecoming in recent years with his two Star Wars sequel trilogy scores while, to boot, it's worth considering if the accumulated nuances of his twilight career are by now to such a degree that actually exceeds the specific kind of artless candor needed here. Rather, interesting things are revealed through Silvestri's work. Not only does his comparative reductiveness better encapsulate a simpler kid-adventure tone with its jaunty and caramelized Saturday-morning sensibilities, it moreover reorientates what would've otherwise been an absolute and, in turn, expected Spielberg movie with the weirdly vague and parallel anonymity of being Spielbergian, like something that made its way into multiplexes through a kind of '80s era collective emergence.
Though its box office performance so far has been solid for a mid-Spring opener, as the meta-fiction love letter for which it aims, I suspect it may not find lasting purchase with modern fandom, takeaways ranging from indifferent to mildly amused, in that a) it has not the unspoken free pass of an entirely animated "family film" like Wreck-It Ralph to be favored at a safe, knowing distance by adults, b) lacks the underground cult-cred of Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (or the even scappier and more severer Turbo Kid) and c) never bows before the altar of self-depreciation, the type that masks cynicism with hipster irreverence à la Kick-Ass, Kingsman, Guardians of the Galaxy or Deadpool. Spielberg's Indiana Jones series winked at its audiences without ever smirking at the expense of its own pulp-homage material and here, too, does the filmmaker seem unwilling (or oblivious) to curb his proceedings with smug irony.
There is no joke or satirical caveat to arch nemesis Nolan Sorrento donning a Mechagodzilla or the DeLorean outracing Kong to a finish line of floating trumpets. All of these reference elements ebb and flow through the storied OASIS in unaffected celebration or with some immediate plot-purpose or character motivation i.e., the Zemeckis Cube, Buckaroo Banzai attire, The Shining etc. Easy to understand, then, how such garish and toyetic results can be a shock to the system of anyone anticipating higher aims in clever deconstructionism, and thus quick to dismiss the whole affair as a misfire attempt at speaking to the modern zeitgeist by an aged filmmaker who is no long part if it, at least not beyond any ceremonial sense. But, again ...The Last Starfighter. Hearts are firmly on sleeves here, and Ready Player One is a mainstream Hollywood production dangling the carrot of pop-nostalgia but that only ever really commits inward, lovingly, as a transparent wonder tale riddled with plucky personalities.
If any performance stirs up the most substance, it's Mark Rylance as the proverbial 'man (or ghost?) behind the curtain' James Halliday, creator of OASIS himself. Rylance attunes his quieted, elliptic demeanor of previous rolls to illustrate here Spielberg's recurring 'Peter Pan syndrome' motif. Halliday is ultimately the story's principle question personified: Nostalgia as an inspiration towards wisdom or a hindrance? And the final moments shared between he and Parzival indeed allays the chaotic third-act climax to a pensive state, even if only to gesture sentimentally instead of answer profoundly.
We tend to think of popular filmmakers as those who must repeat our moviegoing highs instead of continuing down their own organic roads of creativity. Maybe full-bore, self-indulging eccentricity is the only road left for Spielberg to travel. Regardless, the one thing he usually does elementally well is fun through formalism, and if Ready Player One appears on the surface to be trivial in frame of mind for daring nothing beyond lessons of wholesome humanism, the through line that gets us there nonetheless gleams with adroitly executed cinematic showmanship that, itself, revels in the audiovisual lexicon of geek culture. And yet it does this so purely as to remove said language from whatever lowbrow association or connotation that typically isolates the "pop" apart from "meaningful" culture, and on its own pours from the story and across the screen virtually unpolluted, like glacial water, every identifiable copyright reference along with whatever generically familiar design reduced to its glyphic essences. Also, Parzival hurls a Chucky doll from a speeding DeLorean while Iron Giant punches Mechagodzilla in the head.
Probably be the most entertaining movie I see this year.