There are moments during “Ready Player One” that remind you just how groundbreaking and fun a Steven Spielberg movie can be. There are also moments that feel like the now 71-year old Spielberg is grasping at nostalgia straws while saying “how do you do, fellow kids” over and over. However, a movie this busy with such a paper thin story and flat characters is kept from being unbearable due to Spielberg’s undeniable ability to entertain.
Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel had been thought to be unfilmable, whether due to the effects or licensing budget needed to get seemingly hundreds of pop culture references on the screen at the same time. Spielberg manages to leap both of those hurdles and the eye-popping effects are so perfect that the movie’s $175 million budget seems like a steal.
“Ready Player One” is set in the year 2044 and apparently, Columbus, OH is the nexus of the United States. Everyone on the planet is connected to a virtual reality world called the OASIS, where they go to play games, work, live vicariously fictional lives, etc. The OASIS was created by the now deceased, socially awkward oddball, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Halliday left an “Easter egg” inside the OASIS and, if you find the three keys to it, the reward is ownership of the OASIS and Halliday’s fortune.
There are two groups on the hunt for Halliday’s treasure: an evil corporation led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) called IOI and “gunters”, regular folks who study Halliday as if he was a worldly scholar. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), named Parzival in the OASIS, is considered to be a top shelf “gunter” and he seems to spend all his time researching and competing inside the OASIS.
There are moments that bog down “Ready Player One”, most notably when characters are required to emote when they are their avatars inside the OASIS. There is a moment when Samantha/Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) explains her complicated backstory to Wade/Parzival that has zero emotional impact because you are watching what appears to be a video game. Zak Penn’s flimsy screenplay quickly abandons that (and mostly all dramatic threads) then moves on to more CGI action.
Of course, that’s a pretty smart move considering every pixel of CGI and motion capture in “Ready Player One” is perfection. The opening race that combines pretty much every cool vehicle from the 1980s (Bigfoot, The Bandit’s Trans Am, THAT DeLorean) is a popcorn-chomping blast from start to finish. The massive epic finale is exciting, but it’s so loaded with characters that it’s impossible to identify them all and some are given maybe two seconds of screen time.
There is one huge reason for movie nerds to see “Ready Player One.” It is a sequence so ambitious and surprising that it should not be spoiled before seeing it. It combines scares, comedy, and is recreated so accurately that it’s downright jaw dropping.
Like most big action movies these days, the 140 minute runtime of “Ready Player One” is overblown and the ending seems to go on forever. There’s a tiny message in there somewhere that is both supportive and critical of people that play video games for days on end. It’s riddled with plot holes and the stakes for the characters are tough to actually care about, but it’s still much smarter and more fun than most action flicks.
It won’t make the cut for Spielberg’s greatest hits, but “Ready Player One” is a fun trip to the 1980s. Sure, it’s praying on people’s love of nostalgia and the good ‘ole days, but that’s the kind of escape you should want in your action movies.