Film review: Ready Player One

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. Today is Good Friday, March 30th. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Megan Basham now on a new film that opened last night in theaters: Ready Player One.

MEGAN BASHAM, REPORTER: It’s hard to imagine a movie plot that hinges on 1980s nostalgia being directed by anyone other than the man responsible for creating much of it—Steven Spielberg.  From the thrilling action sequences to the perfectly-executed flirtatious quips, we feel like we’re watching a great musician play his greatest hits. And everybody else’s.  

In Ready Player One, nearly every pop-culture reference from the Reagan era… including Marty McFly’s DeLorean, the A-Team van, and Monty Python’s holy hand grenade… pops up in this wild Tron-Meets-Willy-Wonka dystopian tale.

I use the description “dystopian” loosely. While the future of teenager Wade Watts—played by Tye Sheridan—isn’t exactly bright, it’s a lot less disturbing and violent than those of his genre comrades like Katniss Everdeen.

AUDIO: My name is Wade Watts. My dad picked that name because it sounded like a superhero’s alter ego. Like Peter Parker or Bruce Banner. But he died when I was a kid. My mom, too. And I ended up here.

In the year 2045, Wade is living in abject poverty like most of the rest of the population… including towers of trailer homes known as “stacks.”  

The good news is he and his friends don’t have to fight each other to survive.  Except, that is, when they want to in the seemingly endless role-playing world they use to escape their troubles—an international videogame phenomenon known as The Oasis.  

AUDIO » This is the Oasis. It’s a place where the limits of reality are your own imagination. People come to the Oasis for all the things they can do. But they stay because of all the things they can be.

And thanks to the last will and testament of the game’s trillionaire creator James Halliday—played by a phenomenal Mark Rylance—one lucky player has the chance to make the real world pretty good, too.  All they have to do is solve clues from Halliday’s past to find three keys that unlock the door to controlling interest in his company.

AUDIO: Hello. If you’re watching this, I’m dead. I created a hidden object. An Easter egg. The first person to find the egg will inherit half a trillion dollars and total control of the Oasis itself.

While Spielberg may have a reputation for leaning left, it’s clear from the changes he made to Ernest Cline’s best-selling novel that he was committed to creating a crowd-pleaser for… well… crowds.  Cline’s book devoted tedious amounts of time to grating lectures on climate change and 8th grade-level diatribes against organized religion. While your standard-issue evil corporation fills the role of bad guy, it’s aims are too generic and frankly nonsensical to feel like any serious anti-capitalist messaging.  Mostly it just seems like Spielberg needs imposing adults for the teens to rail against.

AUDIO: I just came here to escape. But I found something much bigger than just myself. I found my friends. I found love. And now people have lost their lives. Are you willing to fight?

What’s more, he pointedly ditches the liberal, atheist proselytizing of the book  in favor of sly jokes audiences from all sides of the aisle can enjoy. For example, rather than following the book and blaming climate change or any other current hot topics on the conditions Wade and his friends live in… Spielberg has it all come about from  “corn syrup droughts” and “bandwidth riots.” Not only are these subjects unlikely to get anyone’s dander up, they’re also a far more clever commentary on where present-day America’s failings actually lie.

That said, there’s a downside to Spielberg sticking so close to 80s script. Namely, that kids movies were a lot freer with profanity back in the day. Goonies, ET, Adventures in Babysitting—all these favorites from my childhood shock me with their dialogue when I go back and watch them now. Though Ready Player One at least benefits from the more appropriate modern designation of PG-13, many modern parents won’t appreciate that a movie that should be perfect for all ages includes so much language, including an f-bomb.

If there’s any other major complaint, it’s that as diverting as the movie is, you can’t help feeling that it could have been more.  Had Spielberg spent a little more time in the real world with real people—rather than dazzling our eyes with the CGI spectacles and pop-culture throwbacks—Ready Player One might have been a film today’s youngsters reflect on fondly 30 years from now.  As it stands, the movie is, like its central conceit, just a place to forget our problems and have fun for a couple of hours.

But at least it’s fun the whole country can have together.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.

(Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP) This cover image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Tye Sheridan, left, in the scene of “Ready Player One.”

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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