Fritz: Ernest Cline's novel Ready Player One is a tale of a futuristic virtual reality contest where gamers search for an "Easter egg" that will give them control over The Oasis, a VR world where people spend most of their days because the real world has become so depressing. The book had enthusiastic fans because of its deep dive into 1980s nostalgia (The Oasis creator was obsessed with 80s pop culture), and it had its vocal detractors because of its deep dive into 1980s nostalgia. Personally, I enjoyed the book and I enjoyed the movie, directed by Steven Spielberg. What did you think?
David: I went in cautiously. Spielberg is a master director, but the fact that the film is CGI-heavy could have been a burden, and I find this current 80s nostalgia train kind of tiresome. The plot is essentially a virtual reality version of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), and the characters are archetypes—we have the lonesome hero (Tye Sheridan), the mysterious girl (Olivia Cooke), and the corporate villain (Ben Mendelsohn)—but Ready Player One instantly won me over, thanks to Spielberg's expert direction, thrilling action, and eye-popping visuals.
The 80s references are fun and some are obscure (you got to love a movie that references 1984's The Adventure of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension), but an old Atari 2600 video game is actually a plot point. There are also lots of allusions to 20th-century pop culture in general: a quote from 1978's Superman: The Movie, as well as a few glimpses of the Ray Harryhausen Cyclops creation from 1958's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
What did you enjoy about it?
Fritz: Once the movie is finished unloading a ton of backstory in its first 10 minutes or so, it moves pretty quickly, even though it has a 140-minute running time. There's humor without the film overdosing on snark (like Marvel movies sometimes do). I also found the character of Halladay (Mark Rylance) to be poignant. Rylance won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar working with Spielberg in Bridge of Spies, and he does marvelous work here. He captures the pain and loneliness behind a man who is so awkward that he can't relate to people, so he creates a virtual world where he can be what he's unable to be in the real world. In other hands, this character could have been off-putting, but Rylance gives him a flawed, sad humanity.
With nostalgia, I think it's tiresome how every mediocre-to-pretty-good movie from the 80s is now considered a "classic." I think Stranger Things’s "homages" to 80s films feel more like ripoffs that just remind me of how much more I liked the original movies that they’re borrowing from. But as things tend to go in the social media era, the backlash to nostalgia has been over-the-top. There is value in nostalgia. It can bring a smile on a dark day and, like most things, is perfectly fine in moderation. People who say nothing was better in the past are just as silly as people who say everything was better in the past. And Ready Player One's nostalgia mostly clicked with me. I was born in 1978, and while I was watching the film, part of me thought it would be pretty cool to immerse myself in a virtual world with 80s movie characters (again, in moderation).
Spielberg has proven in the past to have a keen eye for young talent. Do you see bright futures for Sheridan and Cooke?
David: Both actors already have a fair amount of credits, and this is their highest-profile film, and yes, I do think they both have staying power. Sheridan was terrific in David Gordon Green's Joe (2013) opposite Nicolas Cage. And while Sheridan is a good-looking kid, he's a little rough around the edges and not a chiseled pretty boy. His face has character and he sort of looks like a young Tom Hardy. As for Cooke, she is absolutely gorgeous, but she is definitely more than just a pretty face. Here, she projects more than just the cutesy, fantasy girlfriend that screenwriters tend to drop in simply because the hero needs a main squeeze. There is weight to her performance. Both these young actors hold their own in this large-scale special-effects movie.