Review: “Ready Player One” is a lesson in regressive nostalgia

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 4/10/18 2:30am

For better or worse, “Ready Player One” is the natural culmination of the narrative trends Hollywood and moviegoers have favored over the last five years — namely, an intense revival of interest in media from the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Don’t believe me? Well, enjoy that new “Star Wars” movie, the new “Jurassic Park” movie and the new “Predator” movie all coming out later this year. So it should come as no surprise that someone had the bright idea to adapt Ernest Cline’s popular novel “Ready Player One,” a smorgasbord of nostalgia, to the big screen. The fact that it has been brought to life by Steven Spielberg, the man behind so many of the stories that Cline appears to love, is just the cherry on the sundae.

The film follows Wade Watts, a worn-out loser who really happens to be the Chosen One (stop me if you’ve heard that one before). This particular worn-out loser lives in 2045, which is apparently a dystopic nightmare. The film’s world-building is predicated on the notion that the future is awful, driving everyone to plug into a virtual reality world called the OASIS. But the film spends so little time on the “building” part of “world building” that one wonders if these characters are looking for an escape or really just lazy, unmotivated and addicted — addicted to an Easter egg hunt created by James Halliday, deified nerd-extraordinaire and the deceased co-creator of the OASIS.

Although the film makes you feel every excruciating minute of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, the story turns out to be little more than an Easter egg hunt, pitting Wade and his friends against a cohort of cartoonish corporate suits. Of course, no one bought a ticket for the story. They’re watching it for the pop culture references that cram the corners of every frame like photo-bombing nuisances. The film’s internal justification for this gimmick goes as follows: Halliday was a social outcast who created the OASIS not as a beneficial tool for humanity but as a way to deal with his own inadequacies. In turn, he turned his Easter egg hunt into a tribute to the media that sustained and comforted him as a lonely child.

In its best moments, “Ready Player One” acknowledges that there is something deeply troubling about a society that has transformed this man’s vanity project into the linchpin of its existence. Halliday’s story is, after all, a tragic one, not a triumphant one. But the film mostly fails to cast a critical eye on Halliday because it shares his undying love for older media. In a way, Halliday’s story is a cautionary tale for the extreme obsessions of white, male, heterosexual fanboys — but the film is created by white, male, heterosexual fanboys and thus sees not the substance of that story but rather a surface replete with excessive nostalgia.

Of course, nostalgic media is neither inherently good nor bad. Video essayist Lindsay Ellis does a wonderful job of explaining the 30-year cycle in her video “The Upside Down of Nostalgia,” demonstrating that these trends are inevitable and unavoidable. According to Ellis, people tend to be protective of the things they loved growing up, and thus they are often unwilling to accept their flaws. To be clear, there are plenty of non-regressive ways to tap into nostalgia. Love it or hate it, the newest “Star Wars” trilogy has made a more progressive approach to nostalgia crucial to its identity. “Star Wars” has always been loved by women and people of color, for example. But both “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” finally acknowledge this fact and thus cater to these marginalized fans, fostering their nostalgia while acknowledging that the original product was never perfect to begin with. No piece of media — not even a franchise as beloved as “Star Wars” — is ever beyond reproach.

Conversely, “Ready Player One” unwittingly adopts all the worst qualities of the media it aspires to emulate. Almost all of the female characters are props, subjected to a cornucopia of relentless male gazes. Add to that a dash of pernicious racism toward Wade’s two Japanese friends and you’ve got a movie that captures some of the most reprehensible qualities from older films. “Ready Player One” is so desperate to imitate these films that it becomes a hollow shell, with none of what made those other stories worthwhile. The pop culture references, while loving and sincere, occur so frequently and needlessly that they become weightless and exasperating.

“Weightless and exasperating,” incidentally, also serve as perfect adjectives for almost all of the characters. The sole exception is Mark Rylance as Halliday. He appears to be the only person involved with this entire project who actually understands that his character is no god for the nerdy masses, but rather a failed, insecure and deeply flawed human being. As much as I appreciate Rylance’s cognizance, it is distinctly dissonant with the way the rest of the film frames Halliday and his achievements.

But my real sense of disappointment is rooted in the fact that I actually liked some parts of the film more than I thought I would. Spielberg is still one of the finest directors to ever live, and his technical prowess is on full display here. The visuals aren’t kitschy — they look spectacular, genuinely transporting the audience to an astonishing other world that could have been explored more in sequel. But it would need compelling characters and an interesting story for the audience to crave sequels. “Ready Player One” has references — and that’s pretty much it.