Ready Player One is a great popcorn flick that features an array of delightful 1980’s pop culture references. Ironically – or perhaps intentionally – it also critiques the degree to which we have used pop culture to escape from reality.
Steven Spielberg’s latest film is a visual marvel. The CGI sequences are engrossing and gripping, the world of Oasis blurring the lines between live action and animation in the best possible way. But when I think of the images that stuck with me from the film, the first one that comes to mind isn’t actually from the film’s virtual reality game, the Oasis. It comes from the outside perspective of a woman playing the Oasis. When the woman’s son tries to get her attention because the stove is on fire, she snaps, “Go get your father!” before getting blown off of the couch from the virtual reality battle and screaming aloud.
This is a pretty good representation of the film’s core values. Our protagonist, Wade, lives in a dump of a world called “The Stacks,” with trailers stacked on top of each other sky-high. Real-life is pretty terrible for everyone, so everyone spends most of their time in the Oasis. This is where much of the film, and the eye-catching special effects, take place. But despite its marvelous CGI, well-used pop culture Easter eggs, and gamer cliche throwbacks, it’s the real world that Ready Player One wants us to pay attention to. Choices in the game lead to real-world consequences. Wade’s friend Art3mis tells him, “You don’t live in the real world.” And perhaps most telling of all, one particularly important character asks why we can’t go back to when “it was just a game.”
Of course, it is somewhat ironic that the structure that the film uses to make this point is itself engrossing and beautiful. In fact, the mission is largely to save the Oasis – or at least, to save it from the greedy hands of our corporate villain Nolan Serrento (Ben Mendelsohn). I don’t think this is lost on the creators. In the world of Ready Player One, the problem is not that pop culture is evil. The problem is that pop culture as escapism leads to unplugging from the real world. Entertainment should augment reality, not separate from it. And ultimately, the most damage is done when entertainment ends up in the hands of greedy corporate America.
It’s in the film’s villain that its greatest weakness lies. The film’s ability to critique escapism without vilifying pop culture in general is a balance I really appreciate. But the film’s one-dimensional corporate evil – as committed as Mendelsohn is to the role – comes off a bit silly. It also doesn’t connect to the primary theme terribly well – is the core problem behind escapism our own approach to entertainment, or an externally imposed force? The film could have used more of the former and less of the latter.
But despite its silliness, the film remains a blast of a popcorn flick that also contains some interesting ideas. The characters have good chemistry – especially Wade and his best friend Aech – and the imagery is diverse enough that it’s easy to remain interested throughout the film’s substantial runtime. Aside from some needed PG-13 disclaimers (the film contains some language, a scene of partial nudity as part of a film reference, and a fairly sensual dance scene in the CGI Oasis), it’s an absolute blast, definitely worth seeing in theaters, and can spark some conversation about when entertainment becomes escapism.