In “Ready Player One” the world has become a pretty crummy place. Energy shortages, economic stagnation, and overpopulation has turned many of the world’s cities into slums. Aside from widespread poverty it has also resulted in cases of social unrest (my personal favorite being ‘The Bandwith Riots’).
One of the stricken cities is Columbus, Ohio. Orphaned 18-year-old Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives with his Aunt Alice (Susan Lynch) in a poor neighborhood known as The Stacks. Like everyone else, Wade escapes the harshness of life through the OASIS, a massive virtual reality playground of interconnected worlds. It was the brainchild of sheepishly eccentric James Halliday (the always wonderful Mark Rylance) who posthumously reveals that an Easter Egg is hidden deep within the OASIS. Whoever finds the virtual three keys can unlock the Egg and gain full control of Halliday’s fortune and the OASIS.
These are the worlds director Steven Spielberg plays in – both real and virtual. It was first conceived through the creative mind of Earnest Cline whose award-winning 2011 novel has been a phenomenon in itself. Cline joins writer Zak Penn in adapting his story to the screen and Spielberg takes it and runs. The CGI is as endless as the opening narration but it does allow Spielberg to do some pretty crazy things. Look no further than an homage to “The Shining” which is nothing short of fabulous. But by the third act CGI fatigue had set in.
Wade, an unabashed Halliday enthusiast, begins scouting for clues within the OASIS. His hunt for the first key leads to an elaborate vehicle race through virtual Manhattan. It’s an extraordinary sequence featuring Bigfoot (the monster truck, not Sasquatch), the 1933 King Kong, Jurassic Park’s T-Rex, and a DeLorean time machine for starters. Wade encounters and quickly falls for fellow racer Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). The two reluctantly ‘clan up’ to find the keys and keep the Oasis out of the wrong hands.
Ben Mendelsohn provides the story’s antagonist, an evil corporate head who wants the OASIS for himself. Mendelsohn is a good actor who can do these kinds of roles in his sleep. But he feels a little off here. Maybe bland is a better word. I don’t think it’s Mendelsohn’s doing. It’s more of a script issue and indicative of the lack of depth we get in several of the supporting characters.
The story delves into several obvious themes: the haves versus the have-nots, self-identity, etc. But it’s most effective as straight-up pop culture science fiction. It’s essentially a virtual treasure hunt where the characters are searching for three keys while I was hunting for as many culture references as I could find. And there are a ton of them. You could say “Ready Player One” is relentlessly nostalgic and that turns out to be a positive. There are moments when the nostalgia is all that keeps the film afloat.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer volume of pop references scattered throughout the hefty 140 minute running time. The Iron Giant, Hello Kitty, Saturday Night Fever, Freddy Krueger, Mortal Kombat, even Buckaroo Banzai! I’m sure someone out there has compiled a list. For me that was the fun of “Ready Player One” and it’s what made the movie stand out. It’s threaded throughout the story just enough to keep me interested. But if you happen to look past the nostalgia for something more, you may have a hard time finding it.
VERDICT – 3 STARS