Steven Spielberg, Ernest Cline, Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, T.J. Miller and Ben Mendelsohn speaking at the 2017 San Diego Comic Con International, for “Ready Player One.” The movie is based on the 2011 Ernest Cline novel of the same name. GAGE SKIDMORE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS VIA CC BY-SA 2.0

Around the year 2008 or so, everyone decided to agree that nostalgia was an adequate replacement for a personality. If you lacked original thoughts or unique interests, you could essentially entirely make up for those shortcomings by having a love for classic pop culture from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Nerd subculture became the mainstream, and modern pop culture became more and more an effort to recapture the magic of the past; movie franchises were rebooted, and references were rapidly fired out in all directions. “Ready Player One” is a movie that seemingly replaces itself with nostalgia.

Based on the 2011 Ernest Cline novel of the same name, “Ready Player One” is blessed to have been directed by Steven Spielberg, who is responsible for all of the film’s positive attributes. The film shows us Cline’s vision of 2045 where the world is overpopulated and the environment is rapidly degrading, and, much like what will likely happen in real life, the majority of the world’s population has chosen to purposefully ignore this problem by plugging themselves into a worldwide virtual reality world known as the “OASIS.” 

Within the OASIS, you play a larger-than-life video game where you not only can do whatever you want, but can be whoever you want to be. On paper, this seems a premise ripe for criticism of today’s society’s escapist fantasies, but this movie misses out even on that most basic opportunity.

The film follows the efforts of Wade Watts, an 18-year-old orphan portrayed by Tye Sheridan. Watts attempts to locate an “Easter egg” left in the OASIS by its god-like creator, James Halliday, portrayed by Mark Rylance, before his death prior to the beginning of the film. Whoever locates this egg will not only gain Halliday’s fortune, but control of the OASIS as a whole as well. Wade races to find this egg in order to prevent it from falling into the hands of the film’s villain, a sleazy corporate executive who seeks to inundate the OASIS with endless pop-up ads if he gains control.

While the film frames this struggle as an “everyone vs. big corporation” story, it fails to recognize that the whole film itself exists to shout out the creations of other corporate entities, with mindless pop culture references ranging from the Iron Giant to Jurassic Park to Space Invaders filling every moment of the film’s two-hour run time. Much like the original novel, which is criticized for being nerdy wish-fulfillment with no real meaning to it, the film overflows with references for references’ sake.

Although the film’s premise proves frustrating, one has to admire Spielberg’s directorial work. He puts together multiple inspired action sequences and even some genuinely enjoyable homages to other work, particularly the opening car chase through a virtual city and an extended sequence based on “The Shining.” These sequences are enjoyable for their scale and creativity alone, though at times the weak dialogue will take you right out of the scene. The sandbox-like setting works in Spielberg’s favor, allowing him to litter crowd shots with various creative images and characters as well as to make great creative use of space in his tightly-choreographed action sequences.

Spielberg does a good job making the film watchable, but the story’s lack of a soul remains its biggest issue. “Ready Player One” tries to push a message encouraging people to go out and live their lives and not get caught up in their niche, nerdy interests, but forgets that the whole movie is based around people doing exactly that. Ultimately, the film’s spectacle and action will keep the viewer interested, but its lack of a soul is off-putting and prevents you from truly connecting with any part of the piece.