Featured Article

Nostalgia eats itself in ‘Ready Player One’

Steven Spielberg smashes all his toys together


First things first: I had a good time watching Ready Player One. As promised, the movie feels like a chance for Steven Spielberg to return to his roots as a blockbuster filmmaker, and to take all the toys out of the box and smash them together.

The film is based on Ernest Cline’s bestselling novel, with a script by Cline and Zak Penn. It’s ostensibly set in Columbus, Ohio, 30 years in the future, in a world overwhelmed by climate change and overpopulation. But Ready Player One’s real setting is the OASIS, an enormous virtual reality playground.

The story’s hero is Wade Watts (played by Tye Sheridan), who spends most of his time in the OASIS, hoping to complete three challenges  left behind by James Halliday, the technology’s inventor. Halliday has promised that the first person to complete the challenges will gain control of the OASIS.

The film’s central achievement is bringing this virtual world to life. Rather than aiming for a photo-real effect, Spielberg has embraced the OASIS’ essentially cartoony and video game-like qualities, and after a few minutes of acclimation, I had no problem jumping back-and-forth between the movie’s digital free-for-all and its live action dystopia.

ready player one

It’s clear that the characters take what happens in the OASIS as seriously as anything in the “real world,” and that they see their virtual avatars as an extension or expression of their real selves, so I was happy to follow their lead.

And as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Wreck-it Ralph have already shown, there can be something exhilarating about seeing elements from classic films and video games thrown together. I genuinely felt like I was 10 years old again as I watched the first big set piece, with Wade racing through the streets of New York City in his Back to the Future-style DeLorean, dodging King Kong and the Tyrannosaurus from Jurassic Park.

But I also felt a rapidly growing sense of diminishing returns.

True, Spielberg and other directors of his generation have openly borrowed from old movies throughout their careers. Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars were inspired by the pop culture that Spielberg and his friend George Lucas loved as kids, but those movies transformed what had come before into something new.

There’s nothing quite as magical here. At its worst, Ready Player One amounts to little more than a game of spot-the-reference. And even at its best, any excitement feels more like a rapidly fading sugar rush, not the indelible thrill of Spielberg’s best work.

He’s been happy to talk about Ready Player One as a return to making movies “from the audience, for the audience,” but Spielberg’s also suggested that he has more on his mind than pure entertainment — that the film is meant to highlight some of the ways that the Internet and virtual reality could be used to isolate us, to distract from the world’s very real problems.

Some of that comes across in the film’s opening moments, when Wade climbs down a tower of rundown trailers. Inside each one, we can see that his neighbors are all hidden behind goggles, living in their own fantasies.

But despite a few pious nods towards the importance of the real world, the film doesn’t seem very interested in the flaws of the OASIS — or the dark side of the nostalgic fan culture that Wade embodies. Sure, he has a hard time to talking to girls, but it’s clear that when he confronts the film’s villain (a corporate executive who could never love John Hughes movies the way Wade does), we’re meant to see cheer him on as he declares, “A fanboy knows a hater.”

And while Mark Rylance delivers the film’s most compelling performance as Halliday, the script falls short. By portraying the most powerful technologist in the world as a lonely, awkward but ultimately benign and Willy Wonka-ish figure, it feels strangely out-of-sync with 2018, as we’re all forced to reckon with the damage that these digital platforms may be doing.

And yet … I had a good time. I felt plenty of reservations as I left the theater, but I made my peace with them by accepting Ready Player One as the ultimate expression of geek nostalgia, with all the virtues and the limitations that implies.

I suspect Spielberg and Cline have taken us as far down the pop culture rabbit hole as any movie can go. Hopefully, other filmmakers will realize that, and they’ll look elsewhere for inspiration.

More TechCrunch

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

20 hours ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

21 hours ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo

Sony Music Group has sent letters to more than 700 tech companies and music streaming services to warn them not to use its music to train AI without explicit permission.…

Sony Music warns tech companies over ‘unauthorized’ use of its content to train AI

Winston Chi, Butter’s founder and CEO, told TechCrunch that “most parties, including our investors and us, are making money” from the exit.

GrubMarket buys Butter to give its food distribution tech an AI boost

The investor lawsuit is related to Bolt securing a $30 million personal loan to Ryan Breslow, which was later defaulted on.

Bolt founder Ryan Breslow wants to settle an investor lawsuit by returning $37 million worth of shares

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, launched an enterprise version of the prominent social network in 2015. It always seemed like a stretch for a company built on a consumer…

With the end of Workplace, it’s fair to wonder if Meta was ever serious about the enterprise

X, formerly Twitter, turned TweetDeck into X Pro and pushed it behind a paywall. But there is a new column-based social media tool in town, and it’s from Instagram Threads.…

Meta Threads is testing pinned columns on the web, similar to the old TweetDeck

As part of 2024’s Accessibility Awareness Day, Google is showing off some updates to Android that should be useful to folks with mobility or vision impairments. Project Gameface allows gamers…

Google expands hands-free and eyes-free interfaces on Android