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Sunday, April 01, 2018

Ready Player One

Your enjoyment of Ready Player One may hinge on two things: your love of video games, and your willingness to be bombarded by pop culture references, specifically those from about 1975 to 1990. Because, when it's all said and done, Ready Player One is a valentine to those two topics, and not much else.

Steven Spielberg, who grew up in the '50 and '60s, has fully embraced the period in which he reigned, the '70s and '80s, to direct an adventure film about people who are basically just standing still. You see, in 2045, the world is so miserable that in order to keep their sanity, people escape into the world of Oasis, a massive MPG where they can be anything and do anything. The opening scenes of the film, which is set in Columbus, Ohio in a trailer park where the trailers are stacked like Jenga pieces, show everyone wearing virtual reality goggles and gesturing to whatever they are doing in the game. Given that most people live life now staring into their phones, I don't think we're far from that destiny.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a typical kid who spends all of his time in the game (we don't hear about the employment of anyone--maybe they're all on public assistance?). He has a few friends, such as Aech (Lena Waithe), and spends his time "gunting," or Easter egg hunting. You see, (and the first five minutes or so of the film is all voiceover exposition, which really makes the movie start slowly), the inventor of the game, now deceased (Mark Rylance, channeling Garth Algar) put in an Easter egg that enables the finder to inherit his stock and control of the game.

Sheridan teams up with the sexy avatar of Art3mis (his name is Parzival, finder of the Holy Grail, hers is of the goddess of the hunt) and they set about finding all the clues necessary, all while the evil corporate guy (Ben Mendelsohn) employs hundreds so his company can take over the game. Mendelsohn played a similar character is Rogue One, in the long tradition of making guys in suits, or the Star Wars equivalent, being bad guys.

As I watched the film one thing became instantly apparent--most of it takes place in Oasis. In fact, Ready Player One is really an animated film (it would be eligible for the Oscar in that category, should the studio submit it). Like The Matrix, or Avatar, we spend most of our time with characters who are only representations of themselves. Though I don't play video games (I bought a PS4 and then sold it because I never used it) I got used to this quickly. What I didn't get used to was the barrage of pop culture references, which is dizzying. Some of them I didn't know, such as Gundam, a Japanese robot of some sort. A deep knowledge of the history of Atari games is required for our intrepid bunch to solve the game.

These references, while one day providing the stuff for a drinking game (there's Beetlejuice, take a drink!) take the film away from an exciting adventure and bog it down in nerdgasm trivia. Instead of relying on Gen X nostalgia, why not invent new things that surely would exist in the years from now until 2045? For kids of that year to be knowledgeable of Saturday Night Fever would be like kids today being attuned to Glenn Miller.

But still, Ready Player One is decent entertainment. The cast is okay (I will steal A.O. Scott's line about Sheridan--"Agreeably bland, blandly agreeable"), with Waithe stealing her scenes. The performer that shines brightest is Olivia Cooke as Art3mis, who possesses a kind of stolid charisma--you'd be ready to follow her anywhere.

This is Spielberg's biggest hit in a decade, so I suppose we should expect more trips into the Oasis. I'm okay with that, just show a bit more originality.

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