In the late 2000s, a series of spin-offs of the “Scary Movie” franchise released. Directed by the now infamous Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, these movies like “Epic Movie,” “Disaster Movie” and “Meet the Spartans” were critically panned but financially successful.
These comedies were criticized for not having jokes or characters or coherent plot lines and deriving their “comedy” by throwing iconography onto the screen and assuming the audience would recognize it. These movies felt like lists of pop culture references rather than actual films, making them insufferable to watch for anyone outside their teen years.
While watching “Ready Player One,” a nearly $200 million adaptation of a 2011 novel of the same name, I couldn’t help comparing it to the low-budget, low-effort movies from Friedberg and Seltzer. An amalgamation of pop culture references and icons, this “film” amounts to nothing more than obnoxiously wasted potential.
In the year 2045, the virtual reality world OASIS has consumed the lives of millions, including the main character Wade Watts. When James Halliday — the creator of this infinite virtual world — suddenly dies, he leaves three challenges for players to discover and compete in a treasure hunt. Whoever can overcome these challenges will be rewarded with Halliday’s fortune and control over the OASIS. Watts and his friends decide to take the challenge and save the fantastical world from those who may want it for nefarious reasons.
To get the positives out of the way, Steven Spielberg directs “Ready Player One” with such impressive control that it almost feels out of place. He proves here how masterful of filmmaker he is, making sense of the chaotic action scenes and finding ways to humanize the CGI-laden OASIS.
The visual effects themselves are impressive. They’re not lifelike, but feel like a modern video game with realistic animation. The amount of details and references the animators are able to cram into a scene is just as impressive. Sadly, this film does little to warrant the amount of time and care that went into the filmmaking.
Watching “Ready Player One” is like talking to someone who lacks social skills but is incredibly knowledgeable on one subject. The conversation is interesting and maybe even impressive at first, but once you realize that they don’t know how to talk about anything else, you start to find a way to escape.
The characters are empty vessels defined only by their knowledge of pop culture and Halliday’s personal life. Every conversation, every plot point, is related either to a reference to a movie, video game, or song. While cute at first, it becomes apparent early on that Spielberg doesn’t know what to do with these references. They’re thrown in with reckless abandon, rarely used in interesting ways and quickly become insultingly annoying.
Because of this focus on references, the characters are simplistic to the point of lacking any definite traits or characteristics. I’m not even sure Wade Watts has a personality beyond knowing Halliday’s favorite ‘80s movies. This means when we get to the impressively filmed, massive-scale action scenes, it’s difficult to get invested since we don’t get to know any of the characters.
The movie is banking on the audience investing not in these people, but in their avatars, which are usually nostalgic, iconic characters throughout pop culture. This is frustrating, as the plotline involving Halliday’s past is the only genuine thing in the entire film, and it seems to want to criticize how people rely on nostalgia.
Mark Rylance plays Halliday as a tragic figure whose social awkwardness and reliance on escapist media made him a regretful man. The scenes looking into his past are emotionally engaging, making me wish there was an entire movie dedicated to him and how he created the OASIS.
Another major problem with the focus on pop culture is that “Ready Player One” never considers the larger questions surrounding escapist media and the dystopian world Halliday’s virtual reality invention has created. It’s too busy trying to look cool and pretending to be relatable that it never engages with the possibilities of its hypothetical future.
We never get to understand why this world is failing, how the current generation is shaped by their escape into the OASIS and how that might actually be hurting them socially and mentally. The whole story feels childish, as if it’s trying to appeal to a younger audience, but the suffocating amount of ‘80s references make the film hard for anyone below the age of 30 to understand.
It’s difficult for me to call “Ready Player One” a movie. Devoid of characters, themes, or originality, it hides behind recognizable brands and pop culture icons to escape the responsibility of having to be about anything. By the climactic battle scene, I was begging for the annoyingly vapid references to stop so I could finally leave the theater.
After submitting as a contributing writer for a year, Sam became The Commonwealth Time’s resident film critic. He now spends most of his time watching or writing about movies. When he’s not doing that, he’s watching other people talk about movies. Somewhere in between, Sam goes to his classes on his journey towards earning an English degree. Sam is always willing to talk about any nerdy subject, be it the importance of horror films on pop culture, or why YouTube is the future of media, for better or worse.