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'Ready Player One' Is a Vintage Spielberg Ride You'll Want to Take

If the carefully made, earnest, well-acted and politically charged drama The Post exemplified the grown-up Steven Spielberg, then his new science-fiction action flick, Ready Player One, released just months after, is the jazzy, flashy, tripped-out, super-caffeinated kid version of the director many of us grew up loving, and many subsequent directors grew of aping. Ready Player One is a long-overdue opportunity for fanboy Spielberg to pop out again–and he’s so giddy, utterly unleashed and flying his geek flag freely and proudly that you could almost get a contact buzz from his all-the-stops-out adolescent enthusiasm.

The dystopian movie, set in 2045, centers on legendary, wire-rim glasses-wearing teenage gamer Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life), who looks as much like a young Spielberg as humanly possible. As with most of the population eking out a living in the Stacks in Columbus, Ohio, a kind of toweringly vertical, ramshackle trailer park, Wade spends his waking hours trying to escape grim reality by donning a 3-D headset, bodysuit and living online as a chiseled avatar named “Parzival” in Oasis, a VR crazy-quilt amusement park of epic combat, romantic hangouts and pop-culture aural and visual references, largely from the 1980s.   

Along the way, we overhear references to “corn syrup droughts” and the “bandwidth riots” that have reduced much of the population to living hand-to-mouth. No wonder people need online places to let frustrated fantasies take flight.


To offset all this dark stuff, the movie bubbles over with sight gags and pop-culture references designed to stimulate nerdgasms. If Wade/Parzival competes in a breakneck car race through the city, you’d best believe he’s going to driving the DeLorean from Back to the Future while hotly pursued not only by a red cycle from Akira and the 1960s TV Batmobile, but also by the one and only King Kong and the Jurassic Park T-Rex, with Joan Jett wailing on the soundtrack. If the hero crushes on a worthy, kickass avatar competitor named Art3mis (the terrific Olivia Cooke, so good in Thoroughbreds), you have to know that he’ll spend his pre-date hours trying on looks that emulate Michael Jackson, Prince, Duran Duran and Buckaroo Banzai and that soon after, he and Art3mis will burn down the disco with a dancing-on-air showstopper that recalls John Travolta and Donna Pescow’s rug-cutting moves in Saturday Night Fever

And if Parzival encounters friends and enemies, they’re going to look like everything from Iron Giant and Mechagodzilla to characters out of Akira Kurosawa movies, Chucky movies, Alien and a stuffy English butler robot who looks and sounds like a dead ringer for 1930s-era character actor Arthur Treacher, who often played stuffy English butlers. Characters spout famous lines not only from 1980s flicks but also even from It’s a Wonderful Life. Nostalgic enough for you? Just wait. 

The screenplay by Zak Penn (The Avengers, X-Men 2, etc.) and Ernest Cline is based loosely on a cult bestseller novel by Cline. The setup is fairly simple. Everyone’s after three keys hidden by the reclusive, lonely and regretful game designer Halliday (Spielberg regular Mark Rylance, getting better and more touching as the movie progresses), who co-created the virtual world Oasis and who died leaving the escape-addicted world populace lost and grieving. He–or she–who finds the keys, rules the Oasis and hence, the fate of the world.

Wade is after the keys, along with Art3mis, a tech genius named Aech (Lena Waithe) and assorted team members, but so is the soulless, manipulative corporate zillionaire Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). But for a movie in love with state-of-the-art CGI whizbang-ery, Ready Player One and its theme of a generation lost to social media, game playing and lack of feeling feels old-fashioned.   

The novelty of the film’s various worlds wears off quickly. After all, stuff like The Lego Movie and even Wreck-It Ralph got there sooner. The theme–get off the computer/social media, etc. and go live an actual life–is obvious. Its characters, though very well-played by Sheridan and company, are thin and not especially engaging. And though it’s fun to see a director as gifted and adept as Spielberg kicking up his heels again and going for another blockbuster at age 71, Ready Player One feels like a nicely made, highly entertaining throwaway, not a new classic.

Ready Player One

Pros
The film is highly entertaining, and Olivia Cooke dazzles.
Cons
The novelty of the film’s worlds wears off quickly.
Rating: 3 out of 4 bunnies

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