'Ready Player One' film review: Love letter to nostalgia is a pop culture-infused ride
Fans of all things '80s rejoice! "Ready Player One" (opening in theaters nationwide March 29) is a kinetic and nostalgia-drenched valentine to Easter eggs and pop culture.
In short: When the creator of the virtual reality universe OASIS dies, he leaves behind a complex treasure hunt as his last game - and the victor wins control of the OASIS ... and young Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) unexpectedly finds himself leading a life-or-death race to win the game. Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, T. J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Ben Mendelsohn and Mark Rylance also star.
The gimmick of "Player One" is its overwhelming onslaught of '80s references. The production design department clearly had way too much fun working on this film -- virtually every frame of the movie is packed with Easter eggs galore. It's sometimes difficult not to scan the background as if on a scavenger hunt for all the obscure '80s zeitgeist references - like a re-election poster from "Back to the Future" or spotting The Mach 5 from "Speed Racer."
Following the general plot of "Player One" doesn't require a pop culture PhD -- but possessing an extensive knowledge of the '80s sure maximizes the movie's fun factor. The charm of "Player One" is its wealth of hidden gems, which is to say the film co-opts nostalgia of "The Iron Giant," "Godzilla," "Back to the Future" and a thousand other IPs. Thankfully, the film does enough to create a fun and entertaining ride in its own right.
"Player One" challenged director Steven Spielberg with a world-building challenge two fold: he had to fully realize the vibrant and engrossing world of The Oasis, as well as a broken-down dystopian, impoverished Ohio. While the veneer of "Player One" is retro-tastic, its underlying core is an eye-popping and exhilarating action adventure set in two vastly different worlds. The fundamental plot - a race to find three artifacts hidden within The Oasis - is a pretty straightforward plot, the simplicity of which allows Spielberg to flesh out both parallel worlds.
The biggest weakness of "Player One" is how increasingly personal and arcane Wade's quest becomes as the story progresses -- each subsequent item he must find is intrinsically tied to the life of James Halliday, creator of The Oasis. Making the quest so very specific to Halliday's past and Wade's interpretation of Halliday's life creates a gap between the character and the audience. Wade is a compelling protagonist because he's tragically unremarkable (therefore relatable) - but the Oasis quest can only be cracked by those who have tediously studied Halliday's day-to-day life. Often, it's Wade's way-too-exhaustive knowledge of Halliday that saves the day - knowledge that the audience cannot possible have or relate to, which in turn makes them a little bit less accessible.
Final verdict: Any flick that makes a reference to the awesome '80s cult treasure "Buckaroo Bonzai" is a winner. All the wonderful references aside, "Ready Player One" is a thoroughly fun cinematic ride!
"Ready Player One" opens in theaters nationwide March 29. The sci-fi adventure has a running time of 140 minutes and is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language.