Rating: 2.5 stars
The Oasis — the virtual-reality universe in which much of “Ready Player One” takes place, and where the population of its dystopian world escapes from the misery of real life by donning digital avatars — is, in the words of its creator, “full of the things that people love.” (Or, as one wag sitting behind me at a recent screening of the new Steven Spielberg-directed sci-fi thriller observed, with a snort, “Some people.”)
You may be one of the people who loves “Ready Player One,” or you may not. But it will not be because of a lack of stuff to love. The pop-culture detritus of the late 20th century — specifically, for the most part, the Reagan years — is crammed into the Oasis, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (or MMORPG) that feels like mainlining the VH1 show “I Love the ’80s.”
References to the Atari 2600 gaming system, Batman, Buckaroo Banzai, “Back to the Future,” Chuckie from “Child’s Play,” King Kong, Jeeves of the search engine Ask.com, the robot from “The Iron Giant,” a Rubik’s Cube, “Stayin’ Alive” from “Saturday Night Fever” and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” swirl in a soup teeming with forgotten trash and fondly remembered treasures. Surely, there’s a little something in there for (almost) everyone to love.
Set in 2045 in a decaying part of Columbus, Ohio, known as the Stacks — so called because of the trailers that are piled atop each other like Jenga blocks — “Ready Player One” centers on Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teenage geek who spends most of his free time (and much of the plot of the movie) inside the Oasis. There, he appears not as himself, but as his digitized doppelgänger: a platinum-haired version of his aspirational self called Parzival (after the Arthurian hero who quested for the Holy Grail). Here, Parzival’s quarry is something equally elusive: a digital artifact — in gaming-speak, an Easter egg — that has been hidden inside the Oasis by its late creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), whose fortune will be inherited by whoever finds it. Assisting Wade/Parzival in his mission are Samantha, a.k.a. the pixieish, animé-eyed avatar Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), and three gamers Wade knows only as avatars: a muscle-bound man-mountain named Aech (pronounced “H”), the samurai Daito and the ninja Sho. (Accept all of these character descriptions with a grain of salt. As the New Yorker cartoon says, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”)
This tension — between the real world and the digital one — provides much of the nuance, to the extent that there is any, in “Ready Player One.” “Reality is a bummer,” someone says. But like “Blade Runner 2049,” it’s ironically in the dingy, dirty real world that the most engaging parts of the film take place, and not in the hologram-like perfection of places like the Oasis. Co-written by Zak Penn (“X-Men: The Last Stand”) and Ernest Cline, who wrote the original 2011 book, the story is a fairly straightforward digital scavenger hunt: part “Tron” and part “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” An evil corporate titan bent on world domination (Ben Mendelsohn) is the requisite bad guy, a cliched role that is taken down a great peg by the sniping of T.J. Miller as his whining, slightly neurotic henchman.
In the end, whether you love or hate this movie will depend on how you feel about video games — not just as narrative, but as art.
Because so much of the action of “Ready Player One” tales place in the Oasis, so much of the film feels like watching “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.” As with that 2001 film — the first photorealistic, all-CGI feature, and the most expensive movie based on a video game ever — there’s something off-putting about looking at avatars for long periods of time. They’re cartoony, but they’re also real enough. Still, who wants to spend that much time with them? Long, long passages of “Ready” — and at nearly 2 ½ hours, it’s a long, long film — feel less like watching a movie than like playing a video game — or, rather, like watching a video game over someone’s shoulder.
Spielberg, at 71, directs with the verve of a 20-something (or maybe a 71-year-old with a good memory). If “Ready Player One” is tedious at times, it’s also oodles of fun at others, especially during the extended “Shining” sequence, which uses actual clips from the 1980 thriller. (Stanley Kubrick’s film, like many of the other movie references, comes from Warner Bros., the studio behind “Ready Player One,” which made it easy to get the rights.)
There’s a meta quality to “Ready Player One” that is an intriguing — and underutilized — asset. When Parzival finally meets Halliday, late in the film, it is not as the game designer’s avatar, a Gandalf-like wizard with the colossally stupid name of Anorak. (Doesn’t it mean “ski jacket”?) Rather, Halliday looks just as he did in life. “Are you an avatar?” asks Parzival. “Are you alive?”
“No,” Halliday answers to both questions before disappearing. That mystery, hanging in the air unanswered, is the most interesting and infuriating thing about “Ready Player One.”
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and strong language. 140 minutes.