Susan Granger’s review of “Ready Player One” (Warner Bros.)
Sci-fi, virtual reality and nostalgic pop culture collide in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s sprawling 2011 best-seller about a teenager’s quest to win a game that will give him control of a massive digital universe.
Set in 2045 in dystopian Columbus, Ohio, the story revolves around Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an orphaned nerd, living in “the stacks,” a grimy, vertical trailer park. Like everyone else, Wade spends most of his time immersed in a virtual game-room called the Oasis where one can be whoever one wishes.
Before he died, eccentric tech-genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance) left players one last contest. Whoever can solve three challenges will inherit not only his fortune, worth half a trillion dollars, but also control over the Oasis, which he founded with his partner, Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg).
Wade Watts has chosen the hipster Parzival as his avatar in the Oasis, playing alongside his best friend, Hulk-sized Aech (Lena Waithe). Wade’s dazzled by the skill and daring of Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who teams up with them, along with Dairo (Win Morisaki) and Shoto (Philip Zhao). They’re the good guys.
The bad guys are epitomized by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the ruthless CEO of IOI (Innovative Online Industries), who hires teams of hardcore gamers, known as gunters, to find Halliday’s Easter Egg, following obtuse clues drawn from trendy memories of every movie, comic book and video game the socially awkward programmer Halliday ever saw or played.
That propels seemingly endlessly chaotic car/motorcycle/monster truck chases through a murky wonderworld to blaring rock music, battling T-Rex, King Kong and Mechagodzilla – with an occasional assist from The Iron Giant.
Co-written by novelist Cline and Zak Penn and spectacularly imagined by production designer Adam Stockhausen and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, it’s adroitly directed by Spielberg, who occasionally injects some sweetness, sentiment and emotional involvement – but not often enough.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ready Player One” is an overstuffed, escapist 8, brimming with flashy eye candy and fantastic fanboy ferocity.