I am not a gamer, but I had no trouble immersing myself in the hyperkinetic world of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One and had a good time watching it—for a while. I don’t share the same degree of nostalgia for the 1980s that younger people cling to, but we all cherish the movies, songs, TV shows and (yes) video games of our youth. (Hey, even I played Centipede way back when.) Adam Stockhausen’s production design is dazzling, and it’s fun to identify the nonstop references to pop culture, but they come in such profusion that the process becomes exhausting instead of exhilarating. I always enjoy seeing Marvin the Martian, for instance, but he’s onscreen for the length of an eye-blink—in the same shot as dozens of other characters. I’d call this sensory overload.
Although it’s based on Ernest Cline’s popular novel, adapted by Cline and Zak Penn, Ready Player One is a quintessential Spielberg movie. The hero’s journey and motivations are clear-cut in spite of all the high-tech visuals, and although her avatar insists that he will be disappointed when he meets her in the Real World, the girl behind the character known as Art3mis turns out to be a beautiful young woman (Olivia Cooke, with a birthmark on her face). At its core, this is a likable if somewhat corny nerdy-boy-meets-girl tale.
The year is 2045, and life in a city like Columbus, Ohio has become so unbearable that people seek escape in the virtual world of gaming. Tye Sheridan, as Wade, takes on the challenge of solving OASIS founder Mark Rylance’s challenge—to find an Easter Egg he’s left behind—with a little help from his virtual friends. This makes him a target for megalomaniac Ben Mendelsohn, whose big, bad corporation seeks complete domination.
But the scattershot method of invoking those memory-bits only goes so far. The villainy is transparent, except for T.J. Miller’s sidekick character. The film works best when it relies on the camaraderie of the hero and his posse, in both their OASIS avatars and in real life. It’s always a treat to watch Mark Rylance, cast here (in his third Spielberg movie, following Bridge of Spies and The BFG) as the socially awkward genius who originated the virtual universe known as OASIS.
I’m told that fans of Ernest Cline’s book are already grumbling about the changes and omissions in this expansive, expensive adaptation. I can only speak as a moviegoer, and I enjoyed Ready Player One more than I expected to. My complaint is that it goes on too long and squanders its potential in the process.