Special Effects: B-
In the long run, trafficking in nostalgia is a fool's errand. That is, if you want your product -- your work, your art, whatever -- to be remembered beyond its initial run. Then again, a strong case could be made that it's naive to make such a statement: if the product makes a ton of money as soon as it's unleashed on the public, does it matter? With Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg is clearly just cashing a check.
Spielberg is objectively one of the greatest directors of the twentieth century. In the 21st century, his record is a little spottier: one would be hard pressed to come up with a great movie he's made in twenty years; it's been a decade since his output was excellent (Munich); about the same time since he offered something both of a genre and tapped into the zeitgeist of its time (War of the Worlds). Those were both films which, for varying reasons, people are likely still to be talking about ten or twenty years from now.
Ready Player One is undeniably entertaining, but unfortunately -- especially given it's directed by Spielberg -- easily forgotten. It's one pop culture reference after another, a constant parade of reminders of other, superior works. Also, no less then three times during this movie, I was taken out of it to think to myself, Okay, that was dumb.
The plot is beyond preposterous, and lacks the absorbing world-building of, say, Minority Report (2002), Spielberg's last memorable science fiction film -- some elements of which are now a bit dated, but it holds up surprisingly well after sixteen years. In 2034, no one is going to be saying the same of Ready Player One. The visual effects look dated even now -- clearly a deliberate decision, to make us feel like we are watching the interior design of a VR video game. The problem there is that it looks like virtual reality in 2018. Surely in the year 2045 -- only nine years before the setting of Minority Report, incidentally -- virtual reality will be hardly distinguishable from the sight of reality.
Sometimes, in Ready Player One, it actually is, such as when our young hero, Wade (Tye Sheridan) visits the recorded memories/messenger of the designer of the "Oasis" (Mark Rylance), or as in what is possibly the movie's most thrilling sequence, and the players find themselves in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. This is one of the few moments when Ready Player One transcends the pitfalls of trafficking in nostalgia, even without any sight of Jack Nicholson or Shelley Duvall. (There are other delights, and I won't spoil them.)
If all of Ready Player One were like that sequence, when it suddenly becomes smarter than it has any right to be, it could have come within spitting distance of a classic, even as it still relies on a cascade of pop culture references, mostly from the eighties. The game designer, you see, was obsessed with eighties pop culture; he packs the "Oasis" with such references, which makes his obsessive players obsess over those same details as they attempt to find the "easter eggs" needed to obtain three keys that will give them full control of the Oasis universe in the wake of his passing.
Occasionally we get non-eighties references, such as The Iron Giant (released in 1999) or even King Kong, who shows up in an admittedly very cool car race sequence near the beginning of the film. That's a lot of fun to watch.
The time spent inside the Oasis quickly gets tedious, though, and not nearly enough is shown of the real-world environment of 2045 -- "The Stacks," stacked trailer homes in booming Columbus, Ohio, of all places. There are some well-timed sight gags as the visuals switch between the interior of the Oasis and the players in the real world with their gear on, but that's about as far as it goes.
Instead, what we get is a sensory-overload movie-turned-video game, which we as the audience aren't even actually playing; we just watch the characters play it. True, countless people do exactly that on YouTube, and maybe I'm just becoming a geezer who doesn't understand contemporary youth. This doesn't change the fact that Ready Player One is even less nutritious than popcorn entertainment -- it's cotton candy for the eyeballs. When, in another decade or two, movie buffs are still talking about the lasting impact of Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark (ironically, Spielberg references are peppered in the novel of the same name, which Spielberg scrubbed from his own movie adaptation), they will not be talking about Ready Player One.
This movie will surely make plenty of money. But we're talking about a guy who has not once, not twice, but three times made the highest-grossing movie of all time, in 1975, 1982 and 1993. Ready Player One is far from the same league, and its director is better than this. It offers a lot of fun in the moment -- sure, okay, whatever. It doesn't have to be Schindler's List. But it still could have stood some substance to call its own, instead of borrowing it from countless other properties and weakening it to nothing of consequence in the process.