The gamer kid in Steven Spielberg lets his VR freak flag fly in Ready Player One, a mindbending joyride that jacks you into a fantasia bursting with CGI wonders, dazzling cyperscapes mixed with live action, hidden Easter eggs and infinite pop-culture shoutouts to the 1980s. (Better brush up on everything from Alien to Zemeckis if you don’t want to be left behind.) The legendary director’s aim in this go-for-broke adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 sci-fi novel, a geek touchstone, is to get you in the game, and it’s a blockbuster that aches to be interactive, Forget about headsets, however: Spielberg is in control. And why not? He’s the maestro at this kind of stuff.
But first, some harsh reality: It’s 2045. The world has gone to hell. Orphaned Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is stuck in the shithole that time has made of Columbus, Ohio, where people live in trailers piled on top of each other. The populace chase dreams in OASIS, a virtual-reality platform created by mad genius James Halliday (the great Mark Rylance) and his business partner Ogden Morrow (a sly, surprising Simon Pegg). The dying legacy of Halliday’s whacked-out Willy Wonka, seen via numerous flashbacks, is one last, kill-or-be-killed game for his followers to play. The winner who finds the three hidden keys, which will lead the lucky champ to the ultimate Easter egg, will inherit the late creator’s fortune – and total control over OASIS.
And we’re off! When Wade puts on his digital visor, he morphs into Parzival, the perfect cool-kid avatar. His best-friend-forever Aech (Lena Waithe, absolutely terrific – every movie should have her) is a tech whiz whose avatar is proud to show up the competition. Both Wade and Aech have their eye on Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a pink-haired speed diva and a real competitor in the film’s first challenge – a car chase to end all car chases. Obstacles for Wade, traveling in a DeLorean time machine (hello, Back to the Future!), include King Kong, a hungry T. rex and a host of other reference points too sweet to spoil.
Wade passes his first test, along with Aech, Art3mis and the Japanese duo of Daito (Win Morisaki) and Shoto (Philip Zhao) – gunters, a.k.a. Easter egg hunters, that he knows only in the OASIS. But there’s a villain lurking out there: Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), a corporate white dude who’s determined to beat the kids at their own game. He relies on a monster named i-R0k (riotously voiced by T.J. Miller as if he never left Silicon Valley), who is, of course, no match for one boy against the world, a Spielberg staple since the glory days of E.T. In a trivia challenge based on John Hughes movies, Wade will give Nolan the dusting of a lifetime, and working from a script by author Cline and Zak Penn, Spielberg concocts enough battles and showdowns to fill a dozen movies – though look out for a sequence on The Shining that is alone worth the price of admission.
Is it overkill? You bet. But Spielberg’s visual inventiveness is unflagging. He stumbles only when trying to warm up the tech gadgetry with a personal touch, as when Wade and his friends, known as the High 5, finally connect in a reality that brings fantasy crashing down to earth. Sheridan and Cooke bring genuine romantic longing to their few scenes together. But the live-action segments of the movie are more buzz kill than bracing.
For those looking for Ready Player One to condemn the digi-verse as a destructive force against human connection, find another movie. The script is too shallow for that anyway, and don’t look to the filmmaker – a child of divorce who found escape (and an eventual career) by getting happily lost in television, movies and early vid-games – for a lecture. The head-spinning spectacle won’t quit even when the sensory overload gets too much; if he has a chance to show the Iron Giant battling Mechagodzilla, he’ll take it. At 71, this iconic director barely pays lip service to constructing a cautionary tale against anything that might help an alienated kid build an oasis of his or her own imagining. As ever, Spileberg is ready to play. Are you? Game on.