Steven Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One,’ arrives at a moment of peak nostalgia in pop culture. ‘Stranger Things’ rules on Netflix and ‘80s/‘90s revivals are popping up everywhere, most recently with the much touted ratings boon of a rebooted ‘Roseane’ on ABC. This new ‘movie’ (Spielberg himself announced that this cinematic adventure is not a ‘film’) is an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s popular novel of the same name from a few years ago, itself an ode to all things ’80s even as it was set 20+ years in the future. The book may be derided for its lack of literary merit, but the joy of the concept is undeniable, and now Spielberg has successfully translated that fun spirit to the big screen for the masses to enjoy.
The story takes place in 2045, starring relative unknown Tye Sheridan (young Cyclops in the new ‘X-Men’ movies) as Wade Watts, a.k.a. Parzival, his online avatar, and revolves around his attempts to find the Easter egg keys hidden within this future’s version of the internet, a virtual reality paradise called the OASIS. These items were placed inside this vast electronic universe by its creator, James Halliday (a jittery but endearing Mark Rylance), and in true Willy Wonka style, he releases a video at his death that reveals that whomever finds them all will be bequeathed his vast fortune and ownership of the technology. The OASIS has become more than a videogame escape in this timeline as it serves as the only outlet for a human race whose outside world is crumbling around them (Wade himself lives in the ‘stacks’, a trailer park where the homes are piled high on one another, a sign of overpopulation even in more rural areas). It is within this full body visceral experience where people can live out their wildest fantasies and represent themselves in any way they see fit. It is also free and would remain so unless it falls in the hands of the major corporation IOI, itself sparing no expense to hunt for clues at the behest of its leader Nolan Sorrento (a sufficiently smirking Ben Mendelsohn in an obvious casting choice). The key to finding these clues though, is an encyclopedic knowledge of all the things Halliday loved as a kid growing up in the 1980s, which in their zeal to acquire the OASIS creates a subculture of future fandom of the pop culture that current middle aged audiences are also sharing with the next generation.
This perfect symmetry of an aged genius forcing a new found love of the videogames, movies, television, music, etc. that he enjoyed as a young geek, to parents today in their forties enjoying this renaissance of all things ’80s with their own children is fertile ground to take advantage of. Who better to create a cinematic experience that can do this than the king of wonder, Steven Spielberg, whose own works and fingerprints of the time period formed the basis for Cline’s novel to begin with. It’s apparent, especially in interviews currently making the rounds, that Spielberg surrounded himself with talent immersed in various genre fare, both modern and historic, as the screen is absolutely packed with images and renderings from all corners of geekdom. The book’s author Cline shares a screenwriting credit with Zak Penn (story credits on a variety of properties from ‘Avengers’ to ‘X-Men’), so he was clearly on board with the many changes to the set pieces from the source material to the screen, yet the story beats remain basically the same. One of the biggest alterations, and a very welcome one, is the immersion of the characters within the movie ‘The Shining’ instead of ‘Wargames’, a bravura sequence in the middle of ‘Ready Player One’ that jolts the audience and provides a real highlight.
Most of the movie takes place within the digitally rendered world of the OASIS, as Wade’s idealized version of himself drives a Delorean from ‘Back to the Future’ and meets up with friends on-line who he has never met in real life, namely his best friend Aech and the object of his affection, the legendary Gunther (the name for the OASIS egg hunters), Art3mis, a pixie perfect, Akira cycle riding, kickass gamer girl played with guarded sarcasm inside the OASIS and guarded emotion outside in the real world by Olivia Cooke. Their burgeoning romance is played sweetly in a movie that doesn’t take itself all too seriously (although frankly, the heady theme of when to unplug within a collapsing society is ripe for a more serious and artistic take). At almost two and half hours, the movie wears out its welcome a bit, particularly (and fittingly) when it is set outside of the OASIS, but like the characters in it, a primed audience of all ages marveling at the wonders of a completely immersive VR experience in a gaming wonderland of fun references from every corner of pop culture, will find themselves really enjoying themselves and may not want to leave either . . .
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Zak Penn & Ernest Cline
Running Time: 140 min.
* * * (out of four stars) -OR- B