Spielberg’s action-packed adaptation ‘Ready Player One’ verges on making a digital silk purse out of primarily 1980s pop culture

April 2, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 2, 2018

There are moments during Steven Spielberg’s entertaining new feature, Ready Player One, when I marveled that the man who is arguably cinema’s greatest living director had the audacity to make a movie that was entirely computer-generated.

That’s not actually the case, of course: Only about two-thirds of the film takes place in the Oasis, an expansive virtual-reality realm that allows the populace of an overcrowded, under-resourced Earth to escape from the dismal reality around them. But it’s the virtual-reality sequences of the movie, based on the 2011 best-seller by Ernest Cline, where Spielberg and his team unleash their creativity. During the set pieces — a no-holds-barred road race through a simulated New York City, a paramilitary raid in a digital nightclub with a zero-gravity dance area and a battle royale outside a fantasy castle on “Planet Doom” — Spielberg packs every square inch with dynamic digital creations and pop-culture references. A team of experts in science fiction, comic books, anime, television and other pop-culture subgenres might need to work around the clock for a year to identify and annotate all the references that have been stuffed into the movie, often for just a fraction of a second.

It’s to the credit of Spielberg and his screenwriters, Cline and Zak Penn (The Last Action Hero, The Avengers and other comic-book movies) that the characters and story don’t get lost amid all the visual turmoil. The protagonist is 20-something Ohio native Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, who played Cyclops in X-Men: Apocalypse), whose Oasis “avatar” is an anime-style loner named Parzival. Watts is a devotee of the late James Halliday, an introverted computer scientist. The nerdy Halliday (Mark Rylance) made his fortune and fame by creating and launching the immersive, addictive Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation (Oasis for short) in the 2020s, right as the real world was beginning to fall apart.

Ready Player One centers on Watts’s hunt for the ultimate “easter egg” — a hidden feature that will reward the first person to find it with Halliday’s fortune and complete control of the Oasis itself. Of course, he’s not the only “gunter” (an elision of “egg hunter”); Halliday himself announced the contest in a prerecorded video released to an electrified world after his death in 2040. (Hilariously, Halliday’s death announcement shows him popping out of a recreation of the Starfleet torpedo that served as Spock’s casket in Star Trek II.)

Among the legions of competitors are “sixers,” a troop of faceless employees of Innovative Online Industries. IOI’s villainous CEO, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), hopes that throwing money and manpower at Halliday’s challenge will enable him to gain control of the world’s most important corporate resource. If he wins, he plans to slap advertising on nearly every virtual surface. In an early line, Sorrento says studies show that logos can be placed in up to 80 percent of a gamer’s visual field before users start to experience strokes. (This feels like something of an jab at Ready Player One itself; some of Spielberg’s frames become so frenzied that certain sequences could trigger epilepsy attacks.)

The stakes seem rather dinky at first, especially because five years have passed and no one has had any success at solving Halliday’s puzzles. But when Parzival becomes the first person to win one of the contests that will unlock the easter egg, the rewards include a certain measure of notoriety as well as a horde of virtual coin. Both of these affect Watts’s real-world life, and not just because Watts is able to buy one a top-of-the-line virtual-reality suit to enhance his visits to the Oasis.

Sorrento, who’s more than willing to trample some peons to secure wealth and power, tasks his henchman I-r0k (T.J. Miller of TV’s Silicon Valley, appearing here through the magic of motion-capture) to kill the avatar of Parzival; later, after our protagonist foolishly lets slip his IRL identity, Sorrento assigns the lamentably named F’nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen) to do the same to Watts.

Parzival and his pals Daito, Sho and Aech — pronounced like the letter H — band together with idealistic gunter Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) to obtain the other two keys that are needed to win Halliday’s contest. Their virtual and real-world lives become increasingly intertwined as Sorrento and his ruffians start to track down Watts and his pals.

The twin joys of Ready Player One are the unraveling of Halliday’s puzzles, which require the characters to have an intimate knowledge of the computer scientist’s life, and the unspooling of Spielberg’s lush action sequences, which only require the viewer to keep her or his eyes open. Along the way, we get Spielberg’s takes on iconic characters and settings from classic movies like King KongThe Shining and the Godzilla series.

Unfortunately, the characters aren’t nearly as animated as the movie’s visual effects. The bland Watts falls in love online and in real life with a minimum of fuss as his intentions about what he’d do if he won control of the Oasis evolve. While Sorrento is appropriately loathsome and I-r0k has a certain cunning, no one else in the movie’s contemporary timeline is particularly interesting — not even Art3mis, a.k.a. Samantha, an iconoclast with a passionate hatred toward IOI and it’s heartless profit-minded approach. Halliday and his one-time Oasis partner, the business-oriented Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) have an interesting relationship, but it’s shown only briefly in flashbacks.

I wrote a couple of paragraphs ago that Ready Player One offered two pleasures, but that’s giving it short shrift on two fronts. First, the movie really is amusing, if largely empty-headed, and Halliday’s puzzles are rather absorbing once Watts and friends start to decipher them.

Second, it can be fun to fanboy or fangirl or fanother over all the cultural allusions Spielberg makes. In addition to Spock’s Mark VI torpedo casket, I spotted a movie marquee promoting Jack Slater, the (fictitious) cop from The Last Action Hero, and I think I caught a glimpse of the ED-209 and one of the characters from the 2017 hit video game Overwatch. That’s not to mention the gull-wing-doored time-traveling DeLorean from Back to the Future, which Parzival uses as transportation, and the M41A Colonial Marine pulse rifle, which Art3mis pulls out during one of the firefights. Fans of different intellectual properties will nerdgasm when they see the Iron Giant or…uh…the Voltron-like giant robot that fights Sorrento’s Mechagodzilla near the end. The movie also crams in a Rubik’s cube and a soundtrack featuring plenty of 1980s music, notably Van Halen’s “Jump.”

Some will find the emphasis on 1980s culture grating; I thought it got a bit tiring, even thought I’m nearly the same age as Cline. The nostalgia trip certainly wears a bit thin as, for the most part, Ready Player One would be largely the same if 99 percent of the cultural cameos were replaced by something generic or custom-created for the movie.

But the filmmakers hustle things along at a pretty good pace, and their execution is so good that it’s easy to forgive the movie for being somewhat hollow at its core. Watching Ready Player One is almost as exhilarating as playing a great video game. That may not have been the exact compliment that Spielberg was gunning for, but it’s not bad given how much of the material that Cline and his characters obsessively worship is two-dimensional and cartoonish.

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