"READY PLAYER ONE" — 3 stars — __Tye Sheridan,Olivia Cooke, Letitia Wright, Lena Waithe, Ben Mendelsohn; PG-13 (sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language); in general release__
Steven Spielberg's long-awaited "Ready Player One" may not be the pinnacle of '80s pop culture nostalgia, but it sure aspires to be. It's difficult to think of a film so determined to pack itself full of visual Easter eggs for its audience.
It's only natural that Spielberg would helm the film, which is adapted from Ernest Cline's book. Throughout "Ready Player One," you can sense the youthful joy of the director's own 1980s films.
Set some three decades in the future in a Columbus, Ohio, that looks like a cross between the Los Angeles of "Blade Runner" and the vast garbage stack landscapes of "Wall-E," "Ready Player One" is essentially the story of a kid trying to pass a video game. But given the importance of this particular video game to Cline's dystopian future, passing it is more or less tantamount to saving the world.
The game is the aptly named Oasis, a virtual reality where players can indulge in their greatest fantasies and travel far from the postapocalyptic nightmare of the outside world. This bizarre mashup of fantasy and destitution is where we meet our teenage protagonist, Wade (Tye Sheridan).
Like most everyone else in this world, Wade spends every available moment lost in the Oasis, which was created by a socially backward tech genius named Halliday (Mark Rylance). Since Halliday grew up in the 1980s, his game is packed with nostalgic references to the pop culture of the era.
Understanding this is critical since, at his death, Halliday releases a final challenge to his players: A secret Easter egg has been hidden in the Oasis, and if you can find it, you inherit his multibillion-dollar company. But finding it will require a deep fluency in Halliday's past and the '80s pop culture the game designer loved so dearly.
The plot follows Wade and his gamer friends as they chase down the keys and clues that will take them to the egg. Since the Oasis is so critical to the local economy, a competing company called IOI (Innovative Online Industries) is also determined to find the virtual treasure, and its stuffy CEO Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is willing to use any means necessary to win.
As you might expect, the visual results are something to behold, combining motion capture, visual pop culture references and CGI mayhem, though strangely, a 3-D ticket doesn't seem to be essential to the experience. Spielberg's skillful pacing keeps the visual stimulation focused, such as in a thrilling car chase early on where Wade races the time-traveling Delorean from "Back to the Future" against a fleet of competitors.
The reality vs. virtual reality theme is both implicit and explicit throughout the film, toggling back and forth between the Oasis and the "real world," as "Ready Player One" essentially uses the ultimate video game as a warning against video games. This message is also underscored by the film's romantic subplot between Wade and another gamer named Samantha (Olivia Cooke), who cultivate a romantic relationship in the Oasis long before meeting face-to-face.
But in spite of its moral criticisms, "Ready Player One" remains an unabashed love letter to the pop culture of the 1980s, from its John Hughes trivia dialogue to its time-rewinding Robert Zemeckis joke right down to its persistent soundtrack, which sweeps us from Van Halen to Tears for Fears to Hall and Oates. And if you're a fan of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," one PG-13 rated sequence in the film's second act will be an utter joy.
You don't have to have been a child of the '80s to enjoy "Ready Player One," but it definitely helps. Yet even without that particular fluency, Spielberg's effort should stand as an early warning shot in anticipation of the summer blockbuster season to come.
"Ready Player One" is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language; running time: 140 minutes.