Steven Spielberg’s underrated “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” was viewed by some critics as being cold and lacking in the type of warmth that was exhibited in the director’s numerous classics that came before that picture. I disagreed with those takes on that film – but I apply it, to an extent, to Spielberg’s latest, “Ready Player One,” which was adapted by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline’s from the latter’s novel of the same name.
Near the film’s end – during a scene in which the film’s protagonist, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), comes face to face with one of two men behind the curtain, so to speak – the picture features one of those types of moments that could only occur – at least, successfully – in a Spielberg movie. It involves a reveal, but also some genuine emotion. But much of what leads up to that moment made me feel disconnected from the film’s characters.
As I’m a bit of a Luddite, it would take the length of a feature film for me to adequately explain the world of “Ready Player One.” But suffice it to say that it is set in the future – primarily in Columbus, Ohio, where Wade lives with his aunt, and her latest sleazeball boyfriend, after his parents died – and that humankind spends much of its time in a virtual reality known as The Oasis that was created by a mysterious, but seemingly good natured, man known as Halliday (Mark Rylance). For Wade, this is a blessing, considering that he lives in an area of piled-up trailers known as The Stacks.
As the film opens, Halliday has died and left clues – or, as they are known in big budget movies, Easter Eggs – within The Oasis. The first person who cracks his, for lack of a better phrase, code will be the next caretaker for The Oasis. Meanwhile, a greedy corporate villain named Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) has put together a gigantic army of avatars to seek out the clues, so that he can take over the realm for his own financial gain.
Inside of The Oasis, Wade goes by the avatar Parzival – you know, like the knight – and there meets a group of friends who accompany him on his mission. Olivia Cooke plays a girl named Samantha in the real world, but in The Oasis she is Art3mis. Naturally, Wade falls for her. Parzival has three other teammates against Sorrento, but noting the actors who hide behind their avatars in the real world would be giving away plot twists.
On the one hand, “Ready Player One” has a great soundtrack full of 1980s nuggets. On the other, they are only used to moderate effect. While “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “Faith” are aptly utilized, others – such as “I Hate Myself for Loving You” and “Jump” – do little to speak to the action of the story.
Also, the film makes constant reference to 1970s and 1980s pop culture – yes, it is incorporated into Halliday’s story, but it still often feels assembled in a somewhat clunky manner. At various points, the film’s heroes run across The Iron Giant, Chucky from “Child’s Play,” the T-Rex from “Jurassic Park” and the Delorean from “Back to the Future.” There’s another scene in which the characters find their way into “The Shining,” during a scene that quickly becomes silly due to an overabundance of digital effects.
That being said, there are some stunning digital vistas to be found in “Ready Player One” and a breathless action sequence at the film’s beginning during which Wade takes part in a race that is so frantic it might leave you dizzy. But a significant amount of the film is spent in The Oasis, thereby making it difficult to generate much emotion about characters who are essentially avatars in an expensive-looking video game. Spielberg is the king of blockbusters that incorporate big action sequences with genuine emotion. The former is on display in spades here, but the latter – other than that finale I mentioned – is mostly missing. “Ready Player One” is not a bad film, but it’s a lesser entry into the Spielberg catalogue.