Like an espresso shot of pure nostalgia, the opening pulse of Van Halen’s “Jump” gives the new Steven Spielberg movie a shiny, synthesized start. And you can bet that moviegoers everywhere feel a rush of adrenaline and lean forward, ready to play.

Well… some moviegoers, anyway.

Particularly, those who grew up in the ’80s.

Specifically, guys who grew up in the ’80s.

Dare I say white guys who grew up in the ’80s?

Yeah, this movie will be most popular among those nostalgic for a particular period of pop culture, in which movies followed particular formulas. Guys were meant to rise above their circumstances and Fight the Power, embracing The Hero’s Journey. Girls, while it was cool if they showed some attitude, were mostly trophies to be won. It was best to accessorize with the coolest vehicles and weapons. And scowling corporate villains could always be taken down by a diverse gang of who would enable the hero to take a well-timed shot when the moment came, resulting in an orgasmic explosion of light and noise.

I can’t help but pause right there. Let’s remember the fact that while “Jump” was a huge hit — a blast of radio sunshine that could (forgive me) jump-start anybody’s heart and make anything seem possible — it was also controversial with Van Halen fans because it sounded so much like a sell-out, a genuine rock band famous for its guitars suddenly opting for electronic hooks that any five-year-old could play on a cheap Casio keyboard.

What prompted this obvious compromise for the rock band that almost all Americans had air-guitared to at one time or another? The pressure of corporate influences? An insatiable appetite for a blockbuster? Whatever it was, Van Halen stopped behaving like a rock band and decided to go for a pop-star makeover. It didn’t matter that David Lee Roth said that the song was inspired by a suicide-jumper he saw on TV: the song sounded like the farthest thing from dark and dangerous. It was a pep talk that could just as well have been performed by Huey Lewis and the News (and their upcoming hit “The Power of Love,” which pumped like rocket fuel through Back to the Future, sounded an awful lot like it). Van Halen had lost something essential in the name of crowd-pleasing.

Similarly, Ready Player One is both a flashy, fun adrenaline rush and a baffling artistic and commercial compromise that seems to drain integrity from everyone involved — particularly its director. It has all the exterior dazzle that used to make summertime adventure movies into box-office hits. But there’s a hollowness at the center, the sense that something authentic has been lost in the prioritization of crowd-pleasing over vision. This movie is, for Spielberg, a lot like what would happen if U2 recorded a record that was an homage to all of the contemporary Christian bands who wanted to sound like them, and thus the masters ended up reduced to sounding like their own mediocre imitators.

Like Tron, Ready Player One is all about escaping reality into a game and aiming to win the big prize.

There were good reasons for concern. Ernest Cline’s blockbuster YA adventure novel — a story about a generation of young people fighting to save their virtual reality escape from the corrupting influence of corporate control — has earned mixed reviews for its dubious vision of a nostalgia-focused future. The Oasis, the digital fantasyland into which an apathetic populace has withdrawn, is strangely preoccupied with the 1980s, the pop culture of its author’s youth, and we’re asked to believe that Planet Earth in 2045 has stopped dreaming up ideas of its own, everyone preferring to play with their grandfathers’ action figures.

Such a premise would suggest a meaningful story arc: Rebel! Let’s break free from this cultural paralysis! Remember the words of Bob Dylan: “Nostalgia is death.” Let’s be creators again, making something new, imitating not the surface of those inventions, but carrying on the work of soulful imaginations from which such influential ideas came! And let’s engage as human beings, face to face, again… instead of settling for a community of fake, disembodied identities bent on wish fulfillment.

But that’s not where Ready Player One goes.

For all of the energy its characters expend fighting “the Man,” they’re ultimately opting for the Illusion over the Real, the sentimental over the sincere, the derivative and synthesized over the original and human. This is a movie for those who listen to U2’s “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and miss the irony. And when human beings start dying in the real world — specifically, people related to the hero! — the movie and its characters seem eager to overlook such serious consequences, as if the actual damage of humanity’s departure for an artificial world were just too much trouble to bother about.

To borrow a line from one of Spielberg’s earlier movies, it seems like the inventors of the Oasis “were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” But this movie doesn’t take such concerns seriously. It believes that this absorbing world of recreation is pretty fantastic, so long as our boringly good young white guy is at the controls.


Let’s get specific.

Wade Watts reaches out with the Force… sorta.

In Ready Player One, we’re introduced to an ugly and dilapidated 2045, in which the only fun to be had is found in a virtual reality game called the Oasis. The Steve-Jobs-like inventor of that multiplayer escape, James Halliday (Mark Rylance, Spielberg’s favorite leading man of the 2010s), is dead. But this sad-faced Willy Wonka has, like a philosophical and despondent version of Mark Zuckerberg, lives on within the digital fantasyland that has drawn everyone — like Facebook today — into its enchantments. He haunts this world of overlapping video games and pop-culture references like Spielberg himself, clearly grateful for the adoration of generations, but also regretful and perhaps even remorseful over how his inventions have literally gone “viral” and become a false world over which corporations battle for control.

In the middle of this, a young man named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, trying to make something of the dullest hero the big screen has seen in some time) is proving to be the primary rival against a corporation’s attempt to solve the biggest puzzle Halliday ever designed, one that promises “control of the Oasis” (whatever that means) to whomever wins this digital treasure hunt. Wade is a bored kid, living in denial of his circumstances, living in the dystopic world of “the stacks” — a sort of junkyard world in which skyscraping piles of RVs and storage units serve as condominiums for the poor. He hates his reality and wants a way out. The big Oasis game looks like a lottery he can win to become a genuine slumdog millionaire.

Unlike Gandalf, who saw ultimate power as a corrupting influence, this wizard can’t wait to give it away.

Watts is a simple kid: He wants a fast car, a gang of sidekicks, a dream girl, and the keys to the kingdom. And the movie, rather than challenging these self-centered fantasies, is eager to deliver them. So he drives Back to the Future’s DeLorean, chases a sexy red-leather motorcyclist (from Akira of course), rounds up a standard late-80s “diversity pack” of companions, and goes up against villains who recall the tyrants of Tron, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Matrix. (The film isn’t entirely 80s-focused.)

As I said earlier, this would seem, at first glance, like a story about learning to break free from the ultimately unfulfilling time-suck of online gaming, realizing the ways in which our world’s digital paradises can manipulate us and exploit us, and rediscovering the more important and meaningful work of engaging with flesh-and-blood people, the natural world, and calls for justice and truth.

Nope. Ready Player One is giddily enthusiastic about its alternate universes. Nowhere is this more apparent than it is in those scenes when characters do drop their digital guises and the real world around them seems just as likely to fulfill their fantasies and serve up 80s-style action.


It’s been a long, long time since we’ve seen Spielberg caught up in a state of pure inspiration. He’s a much older man than the one who gave us Raiders of the Lost ArkE.T., Jurassic Park, or even Minority Report, and he’s more preoccupied with celebrating stories of American idealism, conscience, and leadership than dreaming up blockbuster entertainment. So I’m surprised that this material captured and held his attention. It requires him to design a kaleidoscopic alternate universe, a virtual-reality amusement park that serves as a crowded and chaotic homage to the adventure-movie era in which he himself was king.

The Delorean — just one of many iconic elements repurposed in disappointing ways.

Here’s the good news: For surprisingly long stretches of screen time, Ready Player One is loads and loads of fun for an ’80s boy like me. As big-screen amusement parks go, this is a wild ride. We’re strapped into its rollercoaster and launched into a rush that rarely slows down. We move so fast, we barely have time to recognize the barrage of pop-culture references hurtling over, under, and past us. In one early sequence, our hero’s online alter ego drives Back to the Future’s DeLorean in the road race that must have been designed by someone who never stopped dreaming up demolition derbies for his Hot Wheels cars. In the chaos, we glimpse dozens of familiar costumes and vehicles, like an iconic red motorcycle from Akira, while King Kong gallops into the melee, smashing everything in sight.

The action is dizzying, overcrowded, and relentlessly loud, but if you have the strength to pay attention, you’ll see a lot of cleverness that could only come from the choreographer of the Indiana Jones movies. This movie would be a lesser thing if it had been made by anybody else. Somewhere within America’s most distinguished living chronicler of historical dramas lives that girl-crazy teenager who couldn’t wait to send a bullwhip-slinging hero on horseback in pursuit of a Nazi tank.

And he clearly hasn’t outgrown his adolescent impulses when it comes to stories for boys. One of Ready Player One‘s most endearing — and groan-worthy — aspects is how it plays as an allegory about a teenage boy mustering the guts to kiss a girl. The movie makes so, so much of its hero’s infatuation with one of his online rivals that when he finally does lock lips with her, it can only seem anticlimactic. But that is soon followed by a scene involving an awkward attempt to fit a key successfully into a keyhole, and… okay, I’ll stop there. Suffice it to say that this movie will speak more powerfully to boys who are anxious about their first time than it will to a generation worried about the soul-sucking nature of virtual reality.

But that’s the problem: This is supposed to be a movie about kids who escape the hardships of the real world by dreaming their way through wish-fulfillment fantasies. It even goes so far as to confront him with the possibility that Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), the tough-talking female in skin-tight leather who has won his fantasizing heart, might actually be, in the real world, some overweight nerd living in his parents’ basement. But no — this movie doesn’t have the courage of its convictions: When he finds her, she’s as predictably and generically attractive as most 80s-movie trophy girls, reinforcing the fantasy and dismissing any actual questions about authenticity.

That deeply influential moment when you realize that the insecure person who has been hiding behind a dream-girl avatar is, in fact, yeah, your dream girl.

Even the movie’s most underlined attempt at “relevance” ends up feeling like a cop-out. How can you make a movie that genuinely challenges us to consider the corrupting influence of corporate control over art and imagination when the movie you’ve made is bursting with evidence of expensive mergers and franchise ownership? After Sorrento the villain is mocked, foiled, and shamed, you can sense something more menacing at work in all that the end-credits of this movie suggest.

That’s why Ready Player One ultimately feels like a cop-out: Its idea of the “real world” is as much of an ’80s-style entertainment as its digital escapes, and thus it has no integrity on matters of meaningfulness.


It’s hard to know how much to praise the cast here, since we see more of their avatars than we do of the actors themselves.

I can’t help but feel a bit sad that Tye Sheridan — adorable in Malick’s The Tree of Life, and promising in David Lowery’s Mud — would get his biggest “break” in a role that leaves him upstaged by Parzival, his digital stand-in who looks like a young, anime equivalent of Labyrinth‘s David “Goblin King” Bowie. Olivia Cooke wins the Ideal 80s White Girl role, and she’s engaging enough in a maddeningly undeveloped character who happily consents to being Parzival’s trophy before it’s over.

It’s ironic that the actor demonstrating the most human idiosyncrasies here is the scowling and sneering Ben Mendelsohn as the villain. Playing the heartless businessman who would rule the Oasis, Mendelsohn has the most interesting face in the film, both in the “real world” and as an avatar who resembles a steroidal suit-and-tie mash-up of Superman and Jon Hamm.

Villains! Orbs!

Contributing to the film’s inability to separate “the real world” from the digital one is the fact that Wade’s team of sidekicks is such a predictable — and predictably feeble — nod in the direction of diversity. The roles are played by Lena Waithe (who reminds us of a young Leslie Jones so much that you kind of wish they’d just cast Leslie Jones), Philip Zhao (whose character name, “Sho,” seems like a deliberate reference to Short Round, a Spielberg character I’d rather not celebrate), and Win Morisaki (who, playing Daito, the token Japanese character, has an avatar named, of course, Toshiro). These actors are given little (almost nothing) to do.

The movie does a fine enough job concocting crises and adventures that follow the formulas of Lucas/Spielberg adventures. It’s engaging enough, and the effects are never less than awe-inspiring. And one sequence involving some digital trickery that returns us to one of cinema’s most familiar environments represents a first in adventure moviemaking. But then it has to find a way to end. And that’s when it is revealed that this movie can only end up being disingenuous. For a story that would ideally be about shaking ourselves free of the debilitating spell cast on us by the option of alternate realities, this one can’t bring itself to push back against that with conviction, and ends up with a half-hearted endorsement of “Engaging with realty… at least a couple of days a week.” Whoa, there, Spielberg… that’s a tall order!

Might as well jump.

I’m avoiding spoilers here, partly because there really aren’t any. This is basically a thousand interconnected video games running all at once, video games that have all of the stuff of ’80s movies, but none of the soul. (It’s weird that The Iron Giant figures so prominently in this movie, considering it’s not an ’80s thing.) The movies being celebrated here often had much more substantial characters than this movie does. They also often had much more substantial human stories at their hearts. The last time I checked on the Iron Giant, he was declaring, once and for all, that he did not exist to be a weapon. This Iron Giant, well-intentioned as he might be, is present to fight.

While there are a few action sequences that spark with that good-old-fashioned Spielberg inventiveness (the big car races that figure heavily in the trailer have some moments of pure genius), the scenes that dare to reach for real emotion and (worse) real lessons have all of the weight of the Hook finale.

The person having the most fun here is Alan Silvestri — yes, Spielberg has turned to someone other than John Williams for his score! But there’s a reason for that: It wouldn’t do much good to ask Williams to spoof himself, so Silvestri whips up the biggest musical mashup since Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman sang all the world’s top pop love songs in one crazy Moulin Rouge medley. You’ll recognize derivative motifs from a dozen movies. Most notably, whenever a bearded old wizard hands a treasure to his young hero — like Spielberg ceremoniously handing the keys of his kingdom to generations who actually seized them decades ago — the melody is just a couple of notes different from the one that played when a Knight of the Round Table surrendered the Holy Grail to Indiana Jones.

But in this case, the Grail is just a video game prize, and one that represents money. I guess that makes sense in a movie that reduces everything to points on a scoreboard.

Wade prepares for the mash-up mother of all climactic (and anticlimactic) battles.

In Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, somebody shouted “Save the Rebellion! Save the dream!” Unimaginative, but I cared. The rallying cry here might as well be “Save gaming from corporate control!”  And how can that feel inspiring in a product as obviously corporate as this? When the game’s avatars lose a round and implode, they dissolve into a clatter of golden currency. I swear I heard that sound when the movie itself imploded, in those final minutes, in a shower of noble sentimentality.

Still, it’s fun while it lasts. And considering how much more aesthetically engaging this is than almost anything else in theatres right now, well… might as well jump.