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If you are only vaguely familiar with Austinite Ernest Cline’s smash-hit 2011 novel “Ready Player One” and have glanced at the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s gee-whiz adaptation, it might seem at first like, “Hey, Remember How Cool This ’80s Thing Was When I Was 12?: The Motion Picture.”
It is more than that. How much more? Well, your mileage may vary depending on the extent you buy into the story of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), whose online handle is Parzival. He’s a broke white kid who lives in the slums of 2045 Columbus, Ohio, giant stacks of trailers and RVs called, well, “The Stacks.”
Unless you have a lot of money, everything pretty well stinks in 2045, so lots of folks spend a ton of time in a VR world called “The OASIS,” the creation of which made its founder, the reclusive and awkward James Halliday (Mark Rylance) a trillionaire. After he died, he made a three-section game inside the Oasis — the first to solve all three puzzles wins control of the OASIS and Halliday’s money.
Halliday was an ’80s pop culture obsessive, so his OASIS puzzles are filled with Reagan-era Easter eggs, references and tropes. Egg hunters (or “gunters”) like Wade spend loads of time becoming ’80s culture nerds like Halliday (and Cline), doing time at a virtual library containing all Halliday’s memories.
So get ready for so many visual Easter eggs that Spielberg actually warned the crowd at Sunday night’s world premiere during South by Southwest not to pay too much attention to them. “Just remember one thing: The side windows are for cultural references; the windshield is for a story,” he said. “If you look straight ahead, you can always follow the story.”
Then again, when it was announced that Spielberg was making “Ready Play One” into a splashy feature, wag the dog jokes were impossible to avoid. Not only did the novel owe A TON to Spielberg’s ’80s work, but a story about total retreat into fantasy was being made by a man who was perhaps the greatest natural filmmaker of his generation who also caught all sorts of heat for steadfastly avoiding making movies for actual adults.
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Then again, Spielberg can tell stories about as well as anyone in the business, so after some scene-setting voiceover, the director uses a jaw-dropping action sequence to spell everything out — including Wade’s allies Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe).
Scripted by Cline and Zak Penn, the story, which moves like a DeLorean going back in time, takes place mostly in the OASIS, so everyone is a CGI avatar. Given that a poor mix of live action and CGI can pull the viewer right out of a movie, even the most hardcore CGI haters will warm up to the eye-popping, all-digital design of the OASIS in “Ready Player One,” especially since Spielberg makes the real-world scenes look decently grubby and analogue.
As our heroes try to find all three keys to the digital kingdom, they are pursued in real life and online by Halliday’s former assistant Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), whose IOI corporation is determined to control the OASIS.
This is where the world-building starts getting a little squishy: Just how much control over daily lives does IOI have? Is the OASIS just for entertainment? To what extent are people’s daily economic fortunes dependent on this online world?
Personal relationships are similarly dicey. Online friendships suddenly become awfully close in real life, and the romance is especially light.
But even Spielberg knows this isn’t why you are here — you are here for the overwhelming, dazzling digital set pieces, rendered in astonishing detail, packed full of references you can ignore or indulge in. You want total immersion into a fantasy world? Spielberg is definitely your guy.
“Ready Player One” opens in theaters March 29. Grade: A-