As is often the case these days, the reaction to Ready Player One’s first trailer was sharply divided. But now that Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s beloved sci-fi novel—set in a dystopian future ruled by elaborate virtual reality and 80s pop culture—has screened to its first public audience at the SXSW Film Festival, it’s safe to say that those who were thrilled by the trailer’s references, C.G.I.-enhanced visuals, and vintage Spielberg shots of humans (or their avatars) in the throes of wide-eyed wonder will be even bigger fans of movie itself.
By and large, the audience in Austin’s Paramount Theatre (which, it should be noted, was heavily stacked with guests of the studio and filmmakers) lapped up the film with so much ecstatic enthusiasm that not even two major technical glitches could dampen their glee. But for anyone hoping to find a deeper layer of storytelling beyond the visual orgy and pop-culture nostalgia of the trailer, heed the advice of Spielberg himself when he addressed the crowd before the screening began: this is a “movie,” not a “film.” If you interrogate the messaging behind this wild ride? Well, there be dragons.
The story by Cline—an Austin local who had his own significant fan club in the theater Sunday night—tells the story of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a nice, earnest boy who lives in the post-apocalyptic “stacks” (so-named because the houses are literally stacked on top of each other) in Columbus, Ohio, in the year 2045. By this time, the real world is so filled with the usual miseries of overpopulation and societal decay that its residents, including Wade and his friends Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki), and Shoto (Philip Zhao), spend the majority of their time locked into an elaborate virtual-reality world called the OASIS. The four friends and, eventually, Wade’s crush, known online as Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), are all hell-bent on cracking an elaborate and nearly impossible online game constructed by the late OASIS founder James Halliday (__Mark Rylance,__in top form). In a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-esque twist, whoever finds Halliday’s literal golden Easter egg first will inherit ownership of the OASIS itself.
Of course, any wild adventure story needs an antagonist. Ready Player One finds its in sneering cinematic villain du jour Ben Mendelsohn, who plays former Halliday intern and would-be corporate competition Nolan Sorrento. Sorrento and his legions of drone players are also racing to crack the game—not because they want to preserve the fantastical digital haven that Halliday has built, but because they want to commodify the online experience and milk its human inhabitants for all they’re worth. Intriguingly, the film boils this conflict down in a line that may prove divisive for those who have been burned by the very gamer and pop-culture lover culture Ready Player One aims to celebrate: “A fanboy,” Wade says dismissively to Halliday during a tense confrontation, “can always tell a hater.” The film never stops making distinctions between the “true fans”—who have encyclopedic knowledge of every pop-culture item Halliday was obsessed with—and the pretenders. It’s embracing a kind of fandom gatekeeping that has, in recent years, soured and turned toxic, especially online.
Cline published Ready Player One in 2011, before Gamergate and the vitriolic fanboy wars of, say, the Marvel vs. DC movie rivalry exposed some of the uglier sides of pop-culture tribalism. One of the game’s biggest obstacles tangentially involves overcoming the fear of “kissing a girl.” The gendered ways in which online discourse has emerged around these issues might explain why, of the scores of film critics seated for Ready Player One in Austin Sunday night, it was mostly (though not all of) the women who had a bone to pick with the Spielberg film.
And for all the film’s messages about rejecting cynical corporate commodification of pop culture, as represented by Sorrento and his company, Innovative Online Industries (I.O.I.), the movie itself never interrogates its own role in that commodification. Pause in your enjoyment of its various cameos from film characters, items, and locations, and you may notice that almost every familiar character in the film—from the Iron Giant to King Kong to Godzilla to Harley Quinn to a murderous Chucky to an elaborate film location this review is not supposed to mention—are owned by Warner Bros., the very same studio that made Ready Player One. The possibilities for pop-culture celebration in the OASIS are allegedly endless, but nothing associated with Warner Bros. rival Disney (including all those Marvel heroes) is invited to the party. That, of course, is a legal matter—but also one that’s fairly ironic, given the film’s apparent hatred of all things corporate. In addition to everything else it accomplishes, Ready Player One is an effective little commercial for the Warner Bros. back catalogue.
But let’s be honest: most audiences wanting to see Ready Player One won’t be digging through it for referendums on Gamergate, or keeping score of which pop-culture allusions belong to which studio. They just want a wild ride, and it’s safe to say that Spielberg delivers that. The C.G.I. visuals of the OASIS—especially in the film’s opening race—can be chaotically overwhelming at times, but they can also be elegant in a way neither Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin nor James Cameron’sAvatar—working with slightly clunkier motion-capture technology—managed to be. There is a dance scene between Wade and Art3mis in which her swirling dress and their incredibly detailed digitized expressions effectively sweep the audience up in the love story that runs parallel to the film’s big quest.
Yet even those hoping to be swept up in a joyful adventure with Ready Player One may find themselves taken out of the story, thanks to the heavy use of the T.J. Miller-voiced comic-relief villain i-R0k. Though Miller’s character is the only one who does not have a real-world alter ego—which may have been a conscious choice on behalf of the movie to avoid cutting away to the former Silicon Valley star, who acrimoniously left the HBO series shortly before being accused of sexual misconduct. (He has denied the allegations.) In contrast to his boisterous promotion of the movie at Comic-Con last summer, Miller has been largely absent from more recent publicity for the film—but his voice work in the film serves as a constant reminder that the consequences of the #MeToo movement have not reached all men.
A more reliably great comedic presence in the film is Lena Waithe’s Aech, whose reason for playing a hulking, masculine character in the OASIS is largely glossed over; the fact that she’s actually a lesbian black woman playing a muscle-bound heterosexual white man online is one of the book’s most interesting twists. But Waithe still shines at every opportunity as Wade’s closest friend and frequent adviser. She also has the line that comes the closest to diving into the heart of a story where heroes and villains give themselves digital costumes that include Superman’s curling forelock and an Alien chest-burster. “You’re wearing the costume from your favorite movie?” Aech warmly teases Wade. “Don’t be that guy.”
In fact, all of the real-world heroes and their interactions outside the OASIS are so well-done that fans of both the the book (which necessarily goes deeper into the narrative’s backstory) and Spielberg’s facility with tender human connection may lament how much of the film focuses on spectacle. Some of the most intriguing moments of Ready Player One involve flashbacks to Rylance’s Halliday in the early OASIS planning stages alongside the Steve Wozniak to his Jobs, Ogden Morrow—played with characteristic wit and humor by Simon Pegg.
But because Spielberg seems as eager as Wade to get back to the digital fantasy world he’s created, a lot of the human element is elided or glossed over. Despite the movie’s thesis statement—that the real world matters as much (if not more) than the OASIS—actual human tragedy, like the death of one of our hero’s closest relatives and caretaker, has no real impact on the story. And for all that Spielberg claims he wanted to avoid references to his own movies in Ready Player One, this is in every way a spiritual ode to the boy’s adventure genre he made so popular in the 80s. There is a heart beating at the center of The Goonies,E.T.,Raiders of the Lost Ark, and more—but in Ready Player One, audiences will instead find a gleaming, digital, golden Easter egg. If the thunderous applause drawn by the premiere is any indication, for many, that will be enough.
Get Vanity Fair’s HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:9 Movie Star Wrap Gifts these Celebrities Will Never Forget
Back in 2010, Adam Sandler was so grateful that his dad comedy Grown Ups became a box-office success that he gifted his co-stars Chris Rock, David Spade, Rob Schneider, and Kevin James with $200,000 Maseratis.Photo: From Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection.
Sometimes a wrap gift can be extended for a special work occasion, like the time Chris Rock tapped Tina Fey and Louis C.K. to help him rewrite a movie. After they were done, he sent them both custom Rolex watches with a special message engraved: “Thanks, motherfucker.”Photo: By E. Charbonneau/WireImage.
While making X-Men: Origins, Hugh Jackman went fully nude for one of Wolverine’s escape scenes. The most revealing shots were carefully cut out of the film. But at wrap time, director Gavin Hood presented Jackman with something special: “a bag which had all the film cut off with my dick in it,” Jackman revealed in an interview. “I got frames of film, and I am looking, going, ‘O.K., hello!’ ”Photo: From 20th Century Fox/Everett Collection.
Oprah is probably the most iconic gift-giver of her generation. She lived up to her expectation while on set for Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, giving the whole cast and crew—which included stars like Mindy Kaling and Reese Witherspoon—$400 Juicero juicers.Photo: By Michael Kovac/Getty Images.
If you’re making a movie about booze, the wrap gift might as well fit the theme. In 2013, director Joe Swanberg gifted the cast and crew of Drinking Buddies beer he brewed at home with stars Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson.Photo: From Magnolia Pictures/Everett Collection.
Director Steven Spielberg adored the cast of his romantic drama Always so much that once the movie wrapped, he gave them all (including Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, and John Goodman) fresh Mazda Miatas.Photo: From United Artists/Everett Collection.
While remembering the late Nora Ephron in an essay for Time, Tom Hanks revealed a charming little fact about the famous director of films like Sleepless in Seattle. She loved giving trees as wrap gifts, particularly fruit trees. “Rita [Wilson] and I chose orange,” Hanks wrote. “And the fruit has been lovely, sweet and abundant, just as Nora promised—a constant and perfect reminder of the woman we loved so much.”Photo: From Warner Bros/Everett Collection.PreviousNext
Joanna RobinsonJoanna Robinson is a Hollywood writer covering TV and film for VanityFair.com.