This essay discusses plot points for “Ready Player One,” including the ending; as such, there are spoilers. Those who complain about said spoilers will be dispatched by Cylons into the pit of a Sarlacc where they will listen to Rush’s “Moving Pictures” while being tormented by a copy of “Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz” being forever just out of reach. (See, I can do references, too.)
It is, perhaps, tempting to dismiss Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” as little more than an exercise in crowd-pleasing nostalgia mining, a CGI-addled romp through the pop culture universe that Spielberg himself is, in part, responsible for creating. This temptation is compounded when one considers the source material, a novel that marries the bare bones of the hero’s journey to an unending checklist of references that reflect the sensibilities of author Ernest Cline.
Giving in to that temptation would be a mistake, however. Whereas the original novel is a work about childish obsessions intended to elevate meaningless fandom into something greater, Spielberg’s adaptation is a film about middle-aged regrets, and the ways art can help us come to grips with the choices we have made.
One only need look at the differences between the source material and the adaptation to understand the ways in which Spielberg’s movie and the source novel are at odds. Both movie and book involve an effort to solve a series of puzzles in the OASIS, an immersive virtual-reality universe created by James Halliday (played by Mark Rylance in the film) who, as the story begins, has been dead for some years. The first to solve all the puzzles will win the Easter Egg — and complete control of the OASIS, along with the economic engine that it represents.
In the book, solving all of those puzzles boils down to mastering trivia. Halliday was a pop-culture obsessive, deeply in love with the video games, movies and music of his youth. So-called “gunters” — a diminutive of “egg hunters” — neurotically pore over “Anorak’s Almanac,” a journal made by Halliday before his passing.
“The ‘Almanac’ was over a thousand pages long, but it contained few details about Halliday’s personal life or his day-to-day activities,” Cline wrote in his novel. “Most of the entries were his stream-of-consciousness observations on various classic videogames, science-fiction and fantasy novels, movies, comic books, and ’80s pop culture, mixed with humorous diatribes denouncing everything from organized religion to diet soda. . . . The only thing ‘Anorak’s Almanac’ seemed to indicate was that a familiarity with Halliday’s various obsessions would be essential to finding the egg.”
In the film, we also see extensive, highly detailed journals from Halliday’s life. And these journals provide the clues needed to help the gunters solve the puzzles and find the Easter Egg. But these journals are videos, and they’ve little to do with Halliday’s various pop-culture obsessions. Rather, they’re meticulously-cobbled-together snippets of Halliday’s life — videos drawn from security camera footage, cellphone captures, etc. — intended to help those playing understand that the measure of a man’s life is more than the movies and music he’s obsessed with.
In one of these video journals, Halliday muses about being able to turn back the clock, about being able to undo the various mistakes he has made in his life. “Why can’t we go backwards for once?” he asks, a query that inspires our protagonist Parzival (Tye Sheridan) to try driving backwards on the racetrack that serves as the game’s first challenge. For all the nerdy trappings of that opening adventure — Parzival drives the track in the DeLorean from “Back to the Future”; his friend Aech (Lena Waithe) destroys competitors in a tricked-out “Bigfoot” monster truck; legendary gunter Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) does battle on the bike from “Akira”; they’re pitted against King Kong, among others — the childish ephemera means nothing. The solution to the puzzle was understanding an old man’s sense of regret.
Regret looms large in another puzzle. Parzival and his team of gunters discover that every reference to Kira (Perdita Weeks), the wife of Halliday’s business partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), has been deleted from the video journals, save one. Deciphering that clue, they realize a key must be hidden in a simulacrum of “The Shining.” But the solution to that puzzle has little to do with Stanley Kubrick’s classic film — indeed, the action in the OASIS’s version of the Overlook Hotel bears only surface resemblance to Kubrick’s, and one need not memorize the movie’s dialogue to figure out the key. (The book features a similar challenge tied to “WarGames,” in which Parzival must perfectly reenact a scene from the movie to advance.) The answer instead revolves around taking a chance, and dancing with a recreation of Kira in a ghostly ballroom.
Again: regret, the path not taken, the love not declared. And not simply romantic love; Halliday’s biggest regret is in how he let resentment drive a wedge between himself and Ogden. These are the things that haunt Halliday’s dreams. This is what he wants to drive home to those who play his game. It doesn’t matter whether you know every line from every movie, or every secret path in every 8-bit game. Nowhere is this clearer than in the concluding moments of each work. The final challenge in the book involves remembering the name Kira used as a character while playing Dungeons & Dragons. The final challenge in the movie involves remembering that Halliday’s greatest regret was signing a contract that divorced his best friend from the company forever, an action Halliday took because he resented Ogden’s life with Kira.
One could argue that this is the latest instance of Spielberg hiding a darker edge beneath a layer of pop sentimentality; I’m torn on the question of whether Spielberg’s occasional mawkishness is sincere or a cover for something else. “Ready Player One” may be Spielberg’s esoteric apology for — or, at least, his sheepish acknowledgment of his role in — inaugurating an age of reality-distorting blockbuster fandom. It may just be a popcorn movie (not a film).
But “Ready Player One” is definitely more than an empty spectacle, more than a flashy collection of references and costumes and characters and vehicles and songs and soundtracks. It’s a movie about movies helping us understand life beyond movies.