Ernest Cline’s 2011 mega-bestseller “Ready Player One” was a Steven Spielberg movie waiting to happen. And so it has. Spielberg’s frantically uneven film, adapted by Cline and Zak Penn and set in a grim 2045, posits an immersive virtual world called the OASIS where humans can become their own avatars and do anything imaginable. Since the OASIS was primarily conceived by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), an eccentric inventor with a vast nostalgia for the pop culture of the 1980s, Halliday’s most ardent adherents, most of whom weren’t even born then, are awash in the movie and video game artifacts of that era. Halliday’s biggest enthusiast is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), whose avatar is Parzival, named for the mythical seeker of the Holy Grail. (Wade is also the archetypal Spielberg boy hero: innocent, parentless, and underdog.)
The avatar name is appropriate because Wade/Parzival is primed to win a contest designed by the late Halliday, who decreed that his entire fortune and total control of the OASIS would go to whoever solves a three-part treasure hunt. Win and you own the world – or at least the virtual world.
The serious-minded take-away from “Ready Player One” is that the virtual world has become more real to us than reality. Wade lives in a slummy Columbus, Ohio, trailer park, with the trailers stacked vertically atop one another, and, like almost all its denizens, retreats at every opportunity into the OASIS, where he is thronged with friends he knows only through their avatars. His best buddy is Aech (Lena Waithe), who looks like a cross between a rhinoceros and the Iron Giant (a replica of which Aech proudly displays in his mechanic’s workshop).
Wade’s chief rival in the treasure hunt – at least until they join forces to combat the meanies from IOI (Innovative Online Industries) and its scurvy head of operations, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) – is Samantha, also known as Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a sprite named after the Greek goddess of the hunt who zooms around on her Kaneda bike from the movie “Akira.” By contrast, Wade/Parzival drives a DeLorean in tribute to “Back to the Future.” It’s inevitable that these two will fall for each other, not as avatars but, when the reveal is finally made, as the real-life people behind those avatars. Unlike most of the movie’s other players, these two match up fairly closely in appearance to their fantasy selves. Parzival resembles a rather runny-looking Keanu Reeves; the feral, bright-eyed Art3mis might have stepped out of “Avatar.” For all the film’s techno sophistication, which mixes motion capture, live action, and computer animation, “Ready Player One” at its heart resembles a dewy, coming-of-age love story.
The problem is, that love story, and the message derived from it – that in our cyber age, we desperately need to spend more time in the real world – doesn’t resonate because Spielberg is much better here at virtual reality (VR) than reality. (And also because the real-life characters have no more emotional heft than video game figures.) Whenever the movie yanks us back into non-OASIS land, there’s a letdown. In a sense, Spielberg is his own worst enemy. After staging a whiz-bang OASIS chase scene set in New York, replete with King Kong and T. rexes slashing into the frame, who wants to be dropped back into quotidian slumminess?
Actually, after a while, I was ready to jettison the OASIS as well. Dynamic as much of the filmmaking inside that world is, and as much fun as picking out all the pop culture references can be, the overall effect is like being trapped inside a video game. (Unlike Cline in his book, Spielberg humbly keeps the citations to his own movies to a minimum.)
Despite its cautionary tone, “Ready Player One” doesn’t do a great job of making the case for embracing one’s true self in the real world. It’s a bit like those biblical spectacles that warned against sin while playing up the sinners. There was a time a decade or so ago when Spielberg, in his fantasy films, shucked his transcendent Pollyannaism and concocted scabrous, scary dystopias like “War of the Worlds” and “Minority Report.” The fever seems to have lifted from his brow.
With VR technology already upon us, “Ready Player One” postulates a universe a lot closer to our lives than in those films, and yet it’s noticeably deficient in bad vibes. I think the reason is that the movie is at odds with itself. Spielberg wants us to drop the techno-gadgets and join hands, but it’s the VR world that really juices him. He’s the ultimate fanboy making a movie about the need to move beyond being a fan. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity, and language.)