Ready Player One

In 2045, Wade Watts (played by Tye Sheridan) escapes from his dreary reality by entering a virtual reality world called The Oasis. While everyone living in Watt’s home of The Stacks (with living quarters of trailers and junk piled high and tight) plays in this digital world, Watts is attempting to uncover a puzzle within the game.

Director Steven Spielberg has journeyed back to popcorn movie filmmaking but this isn’t a return to form. Along with “The BFG,” here is one of Mr. Spielberg’s most desperate, trying-too-hard efforts, further proof that he’s likely done making twinkly blockbusters for kids. This adaptation of Ernest Cline’s much-admired novel wants to celebrate video game culture but concludes with an old fogey declaration that obsessed gamers need to turn off the console and partake in real life. Sure thing, Mr. Spielberg, right after I steal another car and get one more lap dance on “Graft Theft Auto.”

Sheridan has been on a roll since co-starring in “The Tree of Life” and was outstanding in art house dramas like “Mud” and “Joe.” Oddly enough, he’s underwhelming here and seems out of his depth. Ben Mendelsohn, playing the villainous Sorrento far too soon after “Rogue One,” gives a terrible, one-note and cotton-mouthed performance. Of the actors, only Olivia Cooke shines, though she has no chemistry with Sheridan, her romantic interest. The thoroughly one-note characters and  failure of the love story to generate real emotion are crucial problems.

There is a fantastic car chase in the film’s first act, in which bundles of famous autos smash against one another, as the roads alter their shape and feature giant obstacles. The scene has no music and is a tour de force of editing, sound and visual effects. It’s the best part of the film and enough reason to see this on the biggest screen possible.

I’ll avoid spoiling the plot and the countless appearances of pop culture characters and artifacts. However, in order to address a key problem, allow me to bring up two things the trailer and poster art have already highlighted: It’s cool seeing The Iron Giant in a fight scene but that character minus Vin Diesel’s soulful vocals and inner yearning is just an action figure. Likewise, the “Back to the Future” Delorean, minus the ability to time travel , is just a car. The so-called “Easter eggs” throughout this movie are fun to spot in a Where’s Waldo way but are empty diversions.

There’s a lengthy sequence where our heroes enter a game version of a classic 80’s horror film; its clever at first but serves as an awkward experiment on Spielberg’s part to ingratiate himself further with a late filmmaker. It’s also another example of how the film is both a self-parody and a commentary on itself: like Spielberg’s direction and Alan Silvestri’s score, it’s far too reliant on mimicry and past glories to stand on its own.

The message of the film is confused, as someone declares the battle at hand boils down to “the fan boys versus the haters.” The bureaucratic stooge with no love or knowledge of 80’s pop culture goes against a kid who can name the  high school where “The Breakfast Club” is set. Fine, except that “Ready Player One”  is a lavish, corporate product, more on the side of Sorrento than Watts. Both “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” and “Tron: Legacy” offered more grandeur and heart in their take on video game cinema.

The overstuffed CGI action sequences inside The Oasis are the film at its best and busiest, while the live action sequences are clumsy Also, there are some awfully dated Asian stereotypes, particularly an early, utterly dreadful scene of an Asian man attempting suicide (played for laughs).

This is livelier and looser than “Lincoln,” “The Post” and the other respectable, drier-than-a-cracker “grown-up” movies Spielberg has been making for a decade. Yet, “Ready Player One” is all over the place. Unlike the Spielberg-produced masterpiece, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” which offered corporate synergy and allowed famous characters to converse with their personalities intact, the busy list of movie and character references here  (everything from “Hamlet” to “T2”) resemble lifeless used toys at a yard sale.

Finally, before he directs again, can we please stage an intervention and ask Mr. Spielberg to stop casting the awful Mark Rylance in any more of his movies? Not since Shia LaBeouf has Spielberg discovered and showcased a performer so undeserving of the spotlight.

Two Stars

originally published in Maui Time Weekly