Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’ Celebrates Pop Culture With Mind-Blowing Visuals

Steven Spielberg celebrates the very spirit of pop culture, while crafting more of it, with his deliriously creative Ready Player One.” The film is a mixture of classic adventure with a feverish retro vibe. It is all spectacle as Spielberg fills nearly every moment, every scene, with references, winks, Easter eggs and homages to everything from movies and videogames to Top 40. However, the film isn’t all visuals. Spielberg has always been a great director precisely because he’s an excellent storyteller, and the eye candy along with mind-blowing action scenes act as decoration for interesting and meaningful ideas. The master director knows how to play with his toys, but never leaves the audience empty handed.

Based on a bestselling novel by Ernest Cline and set in the year 2045, the movie introduces us to Wade (Tye Sheridan), a teenager living in a future dominated by literal escapism. Following years of ecological and social collapse, society has been reduced to ghettos and people prefer to escape into the electronic program known as OASIS. Think of it as the ultimate virtual reality experience where you can dismiss the crude and sad reality of life for endless hours in a video game-like landscape with a new, fantastic physique. The project was designed by a late genius named Halliday (Mark Rylance), who has infused OASIS with countless pop culture references and personas, as well as clues to unlocking the ultimate key to the program. Those who dare participate in a grand contest to try and find a series of keys which can ultimately lead to finding Halliday’s ultimate “Easter Egg.” Whoever finds this Holy Grail will inherit Halliday’s fortune and in effect, OASIS. Wade partakes in the race under the player name Parzival along with best friend Aech (Lena Waithe). Soon they are joined by the enigmatic, driven Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). Their great foe is a corporate overlord, Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who seeks to control OASIS for his own, greedy purposes.

Visually this is one of Spielberg’s most ambitious and exhilarating recent films. The entire movie is a tribute to the past and its influence on the present. In a sense Spielberg was the perfect director to make this movie considering no other filmmaker has influenced popular culture to the level that he has since the 1970s. For pop culture obsessives, geeks and fans, much of “Ready Player One” is visual nirvana. Parzival’s vehicle of choice is the DeLorean from “Back to the Future,” and he snickers at anyone who doesn’t know about Duran Duran. The film’s first, astounding chase sequence through a virtual city throws reference after reference on the screen. King Kong jumps from a skyscraper, the “Jurassic Park” T-Rex rushes out of a corner and in one master stroke Spielberg even throws in the Batmobile from the 1960s “Batman” TV series. The soundtrack is full of 80s hits. In one dazzling futuristic night club, where people dance floating above a great abyss, the song “Blue Monday ‘88” by New Order becomes an aching soundtrack for a romantic confession. Pac Man and other early video games are referenced either in the set design or dialogue. Doomed to a terrible reality, the world’s inhabitants find solace in the escapism of every other era before theirs. This is the most vivid vision of the future Spielberg has conjured since “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” The visual effects are fantastic, but plausible. One of the movie’s visions is a library in which you can search memories not as textual data, but as moments literally archived for one to revisit and analyze. There is a virtuoso sequence where Spielberg quite literally places the heroes inside Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” It’s great fun, but a loving tribute as well.

Indeed this is a great visual experience, but Spielberg is also aiming for deeper things here. “Ready Player One” on many levels is a unique allegory about identity, memory and the desire to seek escapism from the real world. In a sense we are already living in a society close to the setting of the movie, look around you and count how many faces are trapped by an electronic device. This already sets the movie apart from previous films like “Tron,” which were visually groundbreaking but lacked more of a heart. The screenplay by Cline and Zak Penn has moments of satirical humor in the dialogue, as in a scene where Sorrento announces his company has figured out how much advertising to flash in your view range before inducing seizure. Spielberg is cleverly using the aesthetic of video games to make a positive commentary on them. He seems to be saying that technology is great fun and we should cheer it on, but as a species an obsession with pure escapism won’t do us much good in the long run. The characters find solace in OASIS because they can become slick racers like Parzival, or neo-Punk coolness like Art3mis, or a big, hulky beast like Aech. There are reminders here of people who obsess themselves with the world of cosplaying because for a few moments they can live a fantasy. The story also features elements familiar and classic to Spielberg, especially Wade’s alienation and having to go home to terrible, dysfunctional adults. But it doesn’t feel cliché, instead it gives clarity to why Wade finds his true calling as Parzival. Spielberg, the old romantic, basks in having Parzival staring into Art3mis’s eyes and realizing, amid all the techno sheen and lights, that he has found the one. Somehow it doesn’t come across as cheesy, because these are scarred young people seeking more amid the electronic spectacle. Unlike other filmmakers, Spielberg is telling a story about people and technology, not vice versa.

“Ready Player One” is ultimately a great exhilaration. It’s the kind of movie that leaves you exhausted by the end credits. There is one massive battle sequence that would usually feel cliché but here becomes an immense canvas of different pop culture figures. Spielberg throws everything from the Iron Giant to Chucky into the fray, and that’s not even half of it. Composer Alan Silvestri has fun winking at different, classic themes in the score. At one point it might simply be too much. But that’s part of the experience. Like some rides you’re left dazed by the end, but you might just want to go back for another round.

Ready Player One” opens March 29 in theaters nationwide.