Arriving in theaters a mere three months after The Post, Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi popcorn fantasia Ready Player One feels like a movie made by someone in his 20s rather than his 70s. Never mind the director’s still-prodigious work ethic, the big-screen adaptation of Ernest Cline’s giddily overstuffed, ’80s-saturated best-seller is, in a way, a movie that couldn’t be more bespoke to Spielberg. After all, so many of that decade’s most indelible touchstones poured directly from his brain. It’s the perfect marriage of fabulist and fable.
Written by Cline and Zak Penn, Ready Player One is set in 2045, a dystopian future where an 18-year-old orphan named Wade Watts (Mud’s Tye Sheridan) lives in a bleak Ohio ghetto of scaffolding and stacked trailers. Like everyone else, he escapes from the dreariness of real life through an immersive virtual-reality world called the OASIS. There you can be whoever you want (his avatar is a Final Fantasy-looking rebel named Parzival), as well as do whatever you want — ski down the pyramids, climb Mount Everest with Batman, you name it. His only friends are the anonymous fellow gamers he meets in this role-playing paradise, like Olivia Cooke’s punky, manga-eyed Art3mis.
The OASIS, we learn, was designed by a brainy, socially awkward merry prankster named James Halliday (Mark Rylance, underneath a nimbus of corkscrew curls). Upon his death, he left behind an Easter egg in his virtual world as his final prank: Whoever completes a series of challenges wins control of his trillion-dollar empire. Parzival and Art3mis aren’t the only gamers after this digital grail, though. Ben Mendelsohn’s Nolan Sorrento, the wolfish CEO of a rival tech company, forces countless enslaved citizens to hunt for Halliday’s egg for him.
Spielberg, a master world-builder, has created two distinct realms in Ready Player One, the film seamlessy shifting between the candy-colored OASIS and the bleakness of reality. But the OASIS, with its constant blink-and-miss barrage of pop culture references, is the place you want to be — a fanboy nerdvana where you’re constantly on the run from King Kong or the T. rex from Jurassic Park while zipping around in your Back to the Future DeLorean as Van Halen’s “Jump” cranks on the soundtrack. The best sequence in the film by far comes when Parzival and his pals follow Halliday’s high-tech scavenger hunt to the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, where they come face-to-face with the creepy Grady twins, the bathing woman in Room 237, and the infamous elevator of blood.
Still, the biggest allusion of all in Ready Player One is one that’s never explicitly stated: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. For all of the adventure’s brave-new-world originality and hyperactive speed, Parzival is Charlie Bucket and Halliday is Gene Wilder’s mad confectioner looking for a guileless heir. It’s the tale of a kid whose childlike innocence turns out to be the greatest weapon in a world of adult corruption and greed. What could possibly be more Spielbergian than that?
For the first two-thirds, Ready Player One moves like a roller coaster. You’re so busy piecing together Halliday’s riddles and playing Spot the Reference that there’s barely a second to stop and catch your breath. But by the last half hour (which is punctuated by one of Spielberg’s cornier endings), a sort of fatigue sets in. And not the kind you get from playing a videogame for too long, but the kind you get from watching someone else play a videogame for too long. Eventually, you feel like you’re living through the ’80s in real time. In other words, Ready Player One is pure Thriller, until you eventually look at your watch and want to Beat It. B