‘Ready Player One’ is a cinematic masterpiece, actually

Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” is often maligned as pure commercial noise by hoity-toity cinephiles. Despite the criticism, Spielberg’s love letter to the gaming community upholds the essence of fun action films in the face of pretentious cinema.


Max Van Hosen

(Illustration by Max Van Hosen)

Andre Garcia, Contributing Writer

Every decade has a defining film that taps precisely into the zeitgeist. For American audiences, the ’60s had “The Graduate,” the ’70s had “Apocalypse Now” and the ’80s had “The Breakfast Club.” For the 2010s, the clear winner was, uncontestedly, “Ready Player One.”

Directed by Steven Spielberg and originally based on a novel (2011) by Ernest Cline, “Ready Player One” tells the story of a dystopian world in which the world’s fastest growing cities are located in Ohio. But this is only the beginning of this futuristic hellscape. In a world ravaged by poverty and climate change, the only means of solace is found in the OASIS, a virtual reality massively multiplayer online game (MMO), which perhaps is not too far-fetched of an idea considering recent marketing hype over the “metaverse”, filled with a mind-boggling amount of real intellectual property.

“Ready Player One” is a masterclass in directing, with bright, even blinding cinematography, well-timed cuts and pacing so precise that it becomes obvious that it could’ve only been directed by Spielberg — one of the last true masters of the artform. His genius, combined with Cline’s prescient vision of where our world is headed, makes for a powerful statement on late-stage capitalism, the danger and necessity of escapist entertainment and the innately human emotion of nostalgia. In a sense, this is Spielberg’s most mature movie yet — an intellectual meditation in which he wrestles with his own impact on pop culture.

The film kicks off after OASIS creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) dies, spurring a worldwide scavenger hunt for a golden Easter Egg he hid in the virtual space. Whoever finds the Easter Egg inherits control of the game — which has grown to be the world’s biggest economic resource. We follow Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) as he attempts to crack the code with his expansive gamer knowledge.

As a true fan of the ’80s, Wade is an immediately-attractive protagonist to nostalgic modern audiences. As he speeds and zooms around in his DeLorean, straight from the ’80s hit “Back to the Future,” we are instantly able to recognize that he is not like all the other, inferior, heroes we’ve become accustomed to. This is a cool kid, an enigmatic outsider, a lone wolf — he doesn’t even “clan” with other players, for crying out loud. Wade Watts is a different breed, born in the wrong generation just like the rest of us misunderstood mavericks.

And like all true gamers, Wade’s a ladies’ man. After meeting the effortlessly cool Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) during a race, they decide to team up to keep the OASIS from falling into the hands of the nefarious IOI Corporation, which intends to take control of the game to inundate it with ads and monetize it to hell and back. During their first real conversation at a digital nightclub, Wade confesses his feelings for Art3mis, who is caught off guard by this display of real passion in a virtual world. So strong is this declaration that, in their second real conversation — which takes place in Ohio — they almost share a romantic kiss. What Spielberg is trying to tell us here is clear: The future belongs to the gamers, and the rest of us are all living on borrowed time.

This is the moment where your jaw drops to the floor — if you can believe it, there are people who actually dislike this film. A quick scan of its Letterboxd reviews will reveal a list of common criticisms: which can be summed up as “soulless,” “somewhat clumsy,” and “will be the subject of grad school dissertations for decades. Bad ones, probably.” But the film shows itself to be more intelligent than these critiques give it credit for.

“Ready Player One” depicts the disingenuous corporate posturing of business people. At one point, the CEO of IOI pretends to know what high school Ferris Bueller went to in order to gain Wade’s trust, when in reality some egghead in an earpiece is feeding him the answer. Furthermore, this is one of the few contemporary films that emphasizes the importance of pure, innocent fun and joy. This is clearly seen at the film’s climax, where every intellectual property known to man rushes into frame for a desperate final battle against IOI as Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” blares. Before “Ready Player One,” such emotive heights in film had never been reached. Film historians will look back on this scene and divide the story of cinema into two parts: before “Ready Player One,” and after “Ready Player One”.

The argument that the film is disrespectful and exploitative of popular culture, using identifiable iconography while completely disregarding their meaning — the fact that the pacifistic Iron Giant is used as a weapon is a common criticism — is especially baffling in a world that has fallen in love with “Stranger Things,” aestheticized vintage items and film grain. These same people fawn over how the second season of “Euphoria” was shot on Ektachrome, which, it should be noted in our climate-conscious moment, is awful for the environment — but hey, it’s pretty, isn’t it?

Since when has anyone ever cared about what intellectual properties or pop culture fixtures actually mean unto themselves? We live in a post-”Ready Player One” era — it is time to realize that it has always been about what these properties mean to us, and how these brands and franchises can become part of our own self-expression. It’s why conservatives bump Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” like it isn’t a critique of American patriotism, and why liberals bump The Smiths like Morrissey isn’t a huge racist that makes incel music.

When it comes to criticisms against “Ready Player One,” I’m left a bit confused. After all, isn’t this what you wanted?

Contact Andre Garcia at [email protected].