In a time when much of our popular entertainment is now made by 1980s kids who worshipped at the altar of Steven Spielberg and others, Ready Player One often feels like a loving homage to the product he made. Except it’s made by Spielberg himself and based on a 2011 Ernest Cline novel that also placed Spielberg’s works among its many cultural references. Such an experience runs the considerable risk of collapsing upon itself in a meta avalanche. Yet there’s a reason Spielberg is considered the best in the blockbuster game and he mostly avoids the potential self congratulating pitfalls here. It doesn’t belong in the same stratosphere as his most delicious popcorn offerings, but it contains enough sweetness and eye-popping visuals to be reasonably filling.
We begin in the dystopian future of 2045 where the majority of the Earth’s populace lives in slum conditions. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is among them. He’s an 18-year-old in Columbus, Ohio with deceased parents and a sad life living with his trashy aunt. Wade’s existence matches that of many and their only refuge from squalor is The OASIS. That’s a virtual reality world created by the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance), an eccentric developer whose nostalgic tastes inform his fantasy universe. Those preferences include a whole slew of 80s flicks and tunes and more. Players can select alternate identities when they slap on the VR goggles. Wade takes on the persona of Parzival and he cruises around in the iconic DeLorean from Back to the Future. Wade/Parzival isn’t just a run of the mill player. He’s a good one. And he’s among a small group of high level participants known as Gunters.
Following Halliday’s death, it’s revealed he hid an Easter egg in the OASIS and the first player to find it will inherit control of the whole shebang. Wade has noble intentions should he win. So does Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), an expert gamer who attracts Wade’s admiration and his heart. There’s also those who want control of this trillion-dollar game for more devious purposes. That includes Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), corporate overlord of IOI (Innovative Online Industries). That conglomerate envisions total control of this product and go to dangerous lengths to prevent ace players like Parzival and Art3mis from succeeding.
Ready Player One quickly establishes this dense new world to us without making it seem too complicated. We quickly accept the dual nature of these heroes and villains in the depressed looking capital of Ohio and the shimmering alternate reality of the OASIS. In the latter, players can become whoever they want and the programmers can insert anyone in. That allows a lot of references to characters we’ve seen elsewhere. If you have ever imagined King Kong, The Iron Giant, and the murderous Chucky doll in the same feature, your wish is granted.
Much of this is an excuse for dazzling adventure sequences and many of them truly are. There’s a notable horror pic that is the centerpiece of a key scene. Going much more into it would feel like spoiler territory, but I’ll say it’s a pretty amazing highlight. Some of the battles take on a sameness vibe eventually, but the OASIS is consistently a visual wonder to behold.
Leads Sheridan and Cooke are both stellar. Rylance and Simon Pegg as Halliday’s former business partner are memorable. Mendelsohn (as he did in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) brings a satisfying sinister turn as the bad guy.
Spielberg’s classics have become so because of their heart. Ready Player One is not a classic, but there are moments when the beats of them are well replicated. The picture may be best appreciated by an audience whose nostalgia glasses are usually half full. I’m among them. While you might be watching closely for pop culture references, there’s an overall message of balance between adoration of the past and appreciating the present. The director behind the camera here is deservedly revered for his great past, but he can still provide the goods presently.
*** (out of four)