Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures
Have you ever imagined climbing Mt Everest with Batman? Or traveling into one of Stephen King’s own visual creations? Ernest Cline created an intrepid world in his novel “Ready Player One” and with that, has brought Steven Spielberg back to his grassroots of mainstream blockbusters. Like a throwback to his earlier works, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “Jaws” - “One” is a big budget studio tentpole, that feels like it was made by someone much younger and more “hip” on the lingo of the time (fairly certain “Overwatch” didn't exist when 70 year old Spielberg was in college). The result is a wildly creative, at times draining and distracting, love letter to geek fandom everywhere. You can almost hear the nerd chat boards online starting to beam with reactions and more trying to dissect every single nook and cranny this movie hides beneath the cracks.
Pop cultural references aside, “Ready Player One” has a story and heart worth investing in. Spielberg has very much created an interesting futuristic dystopian society, as the year is 2045 and we zone in on Wade Watts - (Tye Sheridan in a likeable performance) - his dad named him that because it sounded like a superhero’s alter ego. Sadly, his family passed away and he now lives with his Aunt in the slums of Columbus Ohio, a place that was left to ruin after the “corn syrup riots.” One thing that connects everyone and everything is a vast, open world, virtual reality, landscape called The Oasis, which takes the term online gaming to extreme new heights.
But The Oasis is far more fleshed out and intriguing than some silly desktop game. You log on using virtual reality goggles, gloves, and suits. As in real life, if you’ve the money, the possibilities are endless. You can be whatever you want in The Oasis: a character from “Halo?” Check. You want to dress up like Marty McFly from “Back To The Future?” Check. Or maybe you’d like to channel your inner Beetlejuice? Check. Inside The Oasis, Watts takes on an avatar named Parzival, a scavenger searching for the ultimate prize - the granddaddy of them all.
Upon his death, Oasis creator and longtime video game advocate James Halliday (Mark Rylance giving a pitch perfect and awkward performance) sequestered an Easter egg inside the walls of his creation. A secret code which requires the participants to find three distinct keys and clues to unlock a chance to be a millionaire and the opportunity to control the entire Oasis forever. For years, many have tried and failed, including a shady corporation dubbed IOI headed by the sniveling Liam Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn hamming it up). Thankfully, Wade has a fine group of comrades behind him to lead the charge: including a longtime best friend named Aech (Lena Waithe), and a notorious, wise cracking girl named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke).
Spielberg expertly splices many of the scenes in the real world together with the ones in The Oasis. It’s a nice blend, one that’s set up perfectly leaving little questions to be asked. The journey Wade encounters trying to track down the egg is a good one, which includes some exhilarating race sequences, in which, he drives McFly’s Delorean to the tune of Van Halen's “Jump,” of course. And the absolute best sequence in the entire film involves the clan infiltrating Stephen King’s “The Shining” and Spielberg turns the demented horror classic into a video game level that is both inspired and creative.
With so much happening on screen in “Ready Player One” it’s easy to get lost in the visuals. Running a tad lengthy 2 hrs and 20 minutes makes plenty of time for a smorgasbord of 80s throwback nostalgia but it’s also the films greatest diversion. There were moments (few and far between) where I felt distracted by the eye candy and lost sight of the story. I think I could’ve did without one more nod to “The Iron Giant” in favor of more story progression, but at the same time I loved what was done with “Giant” so I’m torn. I will say, licensing must’ve been a nightmare for all the filmmakers involved. I probably checked my watch twice throughout the entire duration.
Equally, looking at “Ready Player One” as a Spielberg film is also a bit ironic, considering some of these properties (“Future,” or “Jurassic Park”) he had a hand in making, directing, or producing. The film is like an ego booster in that regard, but he takes the material seriously and never winks at the audience. Although he does throw some fun nods to his pal Robert Zemeckis in a bit I’ll let you discover for yourself. He’s also found a cast capable of handling the material with boldface chemistry. Cooke and Sheridan are electric, and they’re matched by the wiley Mendelsohn in sporting fashion.
The truth is, I could sit here and divulge all the things I witnessed from Freddy Kruger to Hello Kitty, in every scene you’ll look around and spot something entirely different. The future will tell what kind’ve impact “Ready Player One” will have on the culture which inspired it, but the gooey heart at the climax of the story should help make the case for a very well balanced film.
In addition, the social commentary on pop culture as a language and how we’re vastly invested in technology as a whole proves to be a fascinating concept, in an otherwise pulpy popcorn flick. Further proving that living in reality is the best route to take, you just need to unplug long enough to get there.
Rated PG13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language
Runtime: 2 hrs and 20 minutes