For better or worse, Ready Player One is Steven Spielberg's Battle Royale. While those to whom that sentence might mean something figure it out for themselves, let me add that this adaptation of Ernest Cline's latter-day cyberpunk novel, co-written by the author, reminded me a little of Around the World in 80 Days -- the 1956 Oscar winner, that is, -- in that people may be more interested in scrutinizing each frame for some cameo by a pop-culture character than in the actual plot of the film. When this hits home video it'll probably have the slowest playback of any movie as completists strive to catch 'em all, and that's excusable, since the plot is basic stuff. In Dystopia 2045 nearly everyone escapes from the misery of everyday life by partaking of the Oasis, a VR multiverse created by geek genius James Halliday (current Spielberg alter ego/good luck charm Mark Rylance). The late Halliday has promised effective ownership and creative control over the place to whoever can complete a series of challenges and acquire the keys to the virtual kingdom. Among the favorites on this quest are Parzival, aka Wade Watts of Columbus OH (Tye Sheridan), and Art3mis, aka Samantha Cook of parts unknown (Olivia Cooke), who is as much interested in denying victory to the debt-peon hordes working for the IOI corporation as in winning the quest herself. At IOI, toady turned tycoon Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) hopes that victory in the quest will allow maximum commercialization of the Oasis, which we the audience are meant to see as an evil innovation -- which is rich considering how thoroughly infested the place is already with people using copyrighted cartoon, comics and movie characters as their avatars. In short, it's a treasure hunt with riddles, and Wade/Parzival's extensive scholarship in the minutiae of Halliday's exhaustively chronicled or recreated existence has an intellectual advantage over the competition, or at least the good luck to have insights tying the clues to that are absolutely correct. Assisted by some friendly ethnic types -- a black woman whose avatar is some sort of male cyborg orc and two Asians who take quite predictable forms -- our heroes remain mostly a step ahead of the plodding Sorrento, an unimaginative character who can't remember his passwords and whose avatar looks like the idiot spawn of Superman and Captain Sternn (see, I can do it too!), and his real and virtual henchmen, until the corporate boob gets the upper hand for the sake of drama. Then it's time to rally the hosts for an epic battle of the memes that becomes less epic -- perhaps deliberately so -- when Spielberg peeks behind the curtain to show us the common people of Columbus doing their part by holding a mass conniption fit in the streets. Have you never yet shaken the suspicion that the person striding ahead of you chattering away on his or her Bluetooth is actually just a good old-fashioned paranoid schizophrenic? If so, then this fleeting moment may be the most frightening or the funniest in the whole film.
I suppose I sound mean, but this is still a Spielberg film in the old style and the old man can still stage entertaining action and does so with some extra relish now that he can play with so many licensed properties at once. Ready Player One is crowd-pleasing light entertainment on that level, but otherwise it's pretty dumb if not stupidly fatalistic in its ultimate acquiescence in dystopia. Sure, the world has gone to shit, though apparently not in any way that actually motivates people to change society itself, but we damn well can't let that bad old corporation turn our privately-held virtual commons to shit, now that there's a new boss as opposed to the old boss who was too much of a dweeb to be truly evil. The film's ultimate revolution consists of shutting down the Oasis two days a week so that boys can meet girls the way Halliday never could manage. Huzzah! Meanwhile, our hero is a cypher and his allies, dispersed across the globe though they may be, can appear by his side almost instantly in the real world, dystopia having not at all affected communications and transportation. They're cyphers too, pretty much -- but oh! One of them is a woman pretending to be male, and another is an 11 year old pretending to be an adult, played by an actor pretending to be a child, on the evidence I saw and heard. What of it? The film's fatal flaw is that it lacks the sort of "welcome to the desert of the real" moment that makes The Matrix potent, however silly I thought that was, to the present day. In fact, despite often heroic efforts by Spielberg's most loyal sidekick, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, it's alarmingly hard sometimes -- most damningly in what should be one of the film's most dramatic scenes, when corporate drones blow up the trailer-tower where Wade's aunt and uncle live -- to tell the real from the virtual world.
Scratch that. The film's real fatal flaw is that Eighties bullshit. Apparently the novel is like that, too, and if Cline explained it there -- like maybe it's because everyone emulates Halliday, who grew up back then -- he didn't translate it into his screenplay. It's as if the dystopian event that made Wade's world happened around 1999 rather than in the 2020s. There's precious little evidence in the picture that the 21st century actually took place, while one of our heroic quintet is chided for never having watched The Shining, as if 80% of teens today have seen the Kubrick film. Rationalize this as ye may, but I call it just another excuse to sell a nostalgic soundtrack album alongside Alan Silvestri's John Williams pastiche of a score, called into being presumably because the old master can't keep up with Spielberg any longer. The implausibility of this omnipresent nostalgia pretty much took me out of the picture, since it sounded like no future any sensible person might imagine, and none of the heroic characters had enough gravitas to draw me back in. Best in show goes to Mendelsohn, who between this and Rogue One may become the go-to organization-man loser villain of our time. And to be fair once more, even if the story and overall concept here are shallow if not cynical, but not satirical enough for their own good, Steven Spielberg is still a master of eye-candy spectacle and despite all I've said, I'm geek enough myself to have had some fun spotting all the pop-culture characters running around. If that sounds like fun to you, and if you don't expect anything deep, you probably won't be disappointed.