Human society is run down and slummy, but most people don’t care that much because they spend most of their time in virtual reality anyway.
But enough about present-day America. Steven Spielberg’s latest, based on a 2011 novel by Ernest Cline, takes this state of affairs further, into a bleak and distressingly plausible version of 2045. The teenage hero Wade (Tye Sheridan) resides in a stack of mobile homes in Columbus, Ohio. But he, like most of his neighbors, spends as much time as possible in an immersive online universe called The Oasis, in which people assume the roles of “avatars,” many of them based on favorite pop-culture characters ranging from the Mutant Ninja Turtles to Harryhausen’s Cyclops, as well as many original creations: Wade’s avatar Parzival resembles an anime hero.
The departed creator of the The Oasis, a socially awkward genius named Halliday (Mark Rylance), has left behind a series of “Easter Eggs,” three keys that, if found, will make the player the heir to The Oasis. Tye, of course, is determined to find them. It’s a bit like The Matrix meets Willy Wonka, with Ben Mendelssohn as an evil corporate Slugworth. There’s a dash of The Searchers, too.
Wade/Parzival falls in with various allies, and wild fights and chases ensue, both in The Oasis and the real world. The movie starts slow, and is a bit of a mess; long stretches of it, like a nutty passage set in the Overlook Hotel from Kubrick’s The Shining, are absorbing and funny, while other stretches, especially the real-world stuff, recall the heavy-handed, obsequiously crowd-pleasing Spielberg of the later ’80s. It’s a bit perplexing to see, after the effortless command Spielberg demonstrated a couple of months ago in The Post.
The real fun is in the juxtaposition of pop icons: Where else can we get King Kong and Chucky and The Iron Giant all in the same movie, along with countless characters from video games and cartoons and toy series? Even Mechagodzilla turns up, accompanied by a whisper of Akira Ifukube’s unforgettable Godzilla theme.
Ready Player One seems to be an allegorical plea for, on the commercial and political end, net neutrality, and on the personal end, a bit of moderation where online life is concerned. Neither of these positions is particularly radical, but the movie seems to have its middle-of-the-road heart in more or less the right place.
Ready Player One is rated PG-13 and plays at Tempe Marketplace, Chandler Fashion Center, Arizona Mills and other Valley multiplexes.