Once upon a time (or a long time ago in a galaxy far away if you’d prefer) the world was a cruel place to live for nerds. Bullied frequently, their interests: superheroes, videogames, Dungeons and Dragons were derided as simultaneously childish and hopelessly impenetrable. There was little sympathy to be found with nerd stereotypes popping up throughout pop culture, all enforcing the fallacy that to be a nerd was to be lonely, unpopular and, in all-likelihood, untouched by the fairer sex (of course there have always been female nerds but they were broadly unacknowledged by society or, indeed, by their male equivalents). However beginning in the 90s something very odd began to happen: Nerdy pursuits began to get cool. The kind of kids who played for the rugby team and used to beat up retiring bespeckled types who collected Marvel comics began to get excited about Iron Man, videogames became a billion dollar industry, and every fantasy novel ever written started getting big budget Game of Thrones adaptations. The fact that a director with the kind of clout of Spielberg would make a movie so overflowing with geek hagiography is the ultimate sign of the times.
Ready Player One is set in a nearly dystopian future (after “the corn syrup famine” and “the bandwidth riots”) where caravans are bolted on top of one another to form Jenga-style council houses. With the world being so grim, everyone spends their time hiding from this painful reality by logging into the OASIS, a virtual reality game universe which you feel and see by wearing a VR helmet and full body-suit. A digital universe built by uber-nerd James Halliday (a wonderfully introverted Mark Rylance who spends most of the film in a Space Invaders t-shirt) a kind of Steve Jobs by way of that friend who can recite the entirety of Monty Python and The Holy Grail figure, you can do basically anything in the Oasis, from Doom style first person shooters to brothels, gambling and climbing Mount Everest (“with BATMAN”). Halliday has died and left an Easter Egg hunt in The OASIS as his legacy: Whoever can solve three mysteries he’s encoded into the game will inherit full control over The OASIS and billions of dollars. So with the set up essentially Charlie and The Chocolate Factory by way of The Matrix we’re introduced to Wade Watts, our hero and nerd culture representative and his quest to win control of the OASIS from the nefarious clutches of evil corporation IOI (who are headed up by a suitably oily Ben Mendelson).
The film is basically Pop Culture Nostalgia: The Quest for Brand Recognition, with Spielberg throws endless riffs and references from everything from The Shining to The Iron Giant in a primarily CGI wonderland (the film notably lags whenever it enters the dreary confines of the real world). It should be infuriating but somehow Spielberg’s steady hand makes the whole thing into a thrill-ride. It’s cardboard thin but for anyone who ever identified as a nerd in the last 25 years will find something to get a kick out of, despite their better judgement. I know this nerd did.