Ready Player One

Game on.

By Louis Balzani

Scratchpad reviews are our scoreless first-impressions and thoughts on movies, TV shows, and games. Spoilers ahead.

The year is 2045, and the world is a mess. Billions live impoverished lives in rusted-out, ransacked communities while mammoth corporations led by cartoonish, super-rich villains enslave the masses for their own nefarious purposes. People everywhere escape their squalor by spending their lives plugged into the OASIS, a virtual reality experience that takes the concept of second-life games to their natural conclusion: you can be anyone and do anything. The game’s creator, James Halliday, is no longer alive, but he left a final “easter egg” in his creation, and should anyone in the game world find it, the OASIS and the company that runs it will be theirs. Aside from the OASIS conceit, it’s pretty standard stuff, but it’s enough to get you immersed in the world and let the more creative elements take over.

The game world of the OASIS takes on a smooth, stylish look, but it never looks overtly realistic. There’s a distinct computerized sheen to this side of the movie, which reminds viewers that they’re in the OASIS without looking cheap or clichéd. When combined with the be-anyone, do-anything, limitless nature of OASIS itself, the film is able to craft some spellbinding visuals; a romantic dance in zero-gravity stands out as a highlight. The action sequences dazzle as well, gleefully throwing you into barely-controlled-chaos and carefully approaching sensory overload without actually reaching that point; vehicle races through a collapsing New York City and a climactic battle of the armies, for example, unfold in spectacular and dizzying fashion.So it’s hard to find fault in the action and effects – the same can’t be said for the story. The film employs a few cheats, hand-waves, and narrative shortcuts – especially in the last third or so – and some of the more questionable moments become too eyebrow-raising to ignore. As with any nostalgia-fest of this ilk, Ready Player One owes so much of its identity to the pop culture icons it venerates that it nearly gets overshadowed by them. Will we ultimately remember the film because of its own story and world-building, or because it makes the Iron Giant and Gundam do badass things in a fight? Reference-heavy media needs characters and distinct environmental elements to make a mark on an audience, and I doubt this film’s rather thin characters and generic future dystopia will achieve any long-standing level of notoriety.

Yes, the movie leans hard on nostalgic pop culture references from many a bygone decade, but this is also what helps make the film so fun, and these references take all kinds of forms. Some of them exist as blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos from the likes of Duke Nukem and Tracer from Overwatch. Others receive clever nods through dialogue, such as GoldenEye‘s quintessential Slappers Only mode and Atari’s once-in-a-lifetime Swordquest contest. Still others make up critical pieces of the plot, with creations like Adventure and The Shining becoming key to the overall story. There’s literally hundreds and hundreds of these references peppered throughout the film, and some are so clever and unexpected that they’ll absolutely leave you with a smile on your face.

In all honesty, if none or few of those names and titles mean anything to you, then your time is better spent elsewhere. For everyone else, however, Ready Player One offers up a wild and fun adventure set against a thoroughly nostalgic backdrop. It plays to everyone’s daydreams of fantasy and escapism, of dropping into an idealized world that takes you somewhere better – something we’ve all longed for at some point. Go see the movie with friends, enjoy it, then talk about it over dinner or drinks – you know, in the real world, that place with the “outside” thing everyone keeps talking about. It won’t hurt, I promise.