In 2045, apparently the world sucks so bad that everyone just wants to live in a world of virtual reality. More specifically, they want to live in The Oasis, a VR universe accessible by just putting on your mask. You can be anyone you want to be. You can earn points, lives, and "coins" to amass even more stuff and power. You can be popular, athletic, cool, make friends, and fall in love. But now everyone has a new goal in The Oasis: Before the uber-rich creator of The Oasis died, he left "easter eggs" in the program. In full Willy Wonka-ish fashion, creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) left clues how to "win" the game, inheriting the control and massive fortune of The Oasis. Everyone, of course, wants to win it all.
Our hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a teen in the "stacks" of Columbus, Ohio (visually cool vertical slums), which also happens to be the home of the technology giant that created The Oasis. Wade, known as Parzival in The Oasis, is determined to win, as are his group of online friends like love interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and BFF Aech (Lena Waithe). But tech mogul Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) also wants to win, and has employed an army of employees to try to make it all the way to the end so that he can (financially, at least) rule the world. Ready Player One, in true Spielbergian fashion, becomes a race between scrappy young people and greedy, corrupted adults. Who do you think will come out ahead?
Ready Player One is visually kind of like Avatar plus Tron plus Blade Runner, mixed in a blender, then topped with sugary froth and neon. It is truly eye-popping--a big-screen video game universe. Most of the movie is indeed in this VR world, which is a bit irritating at first (especially the ubiquitous big-eyed CG versions of the main characters). But just as it started to hurt my brain, (because seriously, how much of this can one take?) I started to relax and get into it. If Spielberg knows one thing, it is how to make an entertaining adventure. There is just enough depth to the characters to make you care, and just enough cleverness in the script and plot to keep you involved. Bonus points go to the voice acting of Simon Pegg (as the Curator of a virtual library) and T.J. Miller (as the bad guy's hilarious henchman).
I found it strangely refreshing to see a virtually (no pun intended) death-free family adventure film. Remember, the characters are all playing a video game, so when they "die" in The Oasis, whether its from a planet-obliterating explosion, a fight, or a giant ape, you just recharge, or pay some coins, or use a "life", and you are back in the game. Leave it to Spielberg to bring back the friendliness of family-friendly action films.
Older viewers will get a kick out of identifying as many bits of the truly excessive 80s references, just as kids will crow about how they "discovered" cool music like New Order from watching this pop-culture-soaked film (just in the way my generation "discovered" 50s and 60s pop with the Stand By Me and Big Chill soundtracks). And you know what? It's all good. If this movie was a pile of poo, I'd be more offended to see my childhood put into a video-game-blender, but it is actually a pretty fun trip.