The fanboy heroes of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel “Ready Player One” obsessively study the pop culture of the 1970s and ‘80s, so it seems destined Steven Spielberg would direct the film adaptation. He did, after all have a large hand in shaping that culture. And with “Ready Player One,” Spielberg has directed every ounce of his filmmaking mastery, clout and resources to the careful envisioning of this nearly unfilmable story, which is largely set in virtual reality. It’s a tremendous technological and stylistic achievement. But if you look past the shiny, beautiful images, the detailed tapestry of references and the ‘80s pop hits, the story itself just doesn’t stand up to the epic scope of Spielberg’s vision.
Set in the dystopian landscape of Columbus, Ohio, in 2045, most of the population escapes reality within the virtual world of a massive multi-player online role playing game, Oasis. Before his death, the eccentric founder of Oasis, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), promised ownership of the company to whomever could win a nearly impossible quest within Oasis. The promise of money and power has inspired every gamer in Columbus to enter the hunt, searching for keys to unlock each level and lead them to the winning Easter egg. An evil corporation, IOI, has even gotten in on the action with an army of mercenaries, hoping to win control of Oasis and of course, sell advertising.
Our hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), lives in a teetering trailer park called “The Stacks.” He escapes into Oasis to live as his alter ego, Parzival, play with his friends and of course, hunt for the egg. He scours the recorded memories Halliday left behind for clues, memorizing his favorite movies, video games and TV shows for anything to indicate how to beat the game. But it’s not until he starts reading between the lines that things start to come into focus.
The execution of “Ready Player One” is indisputable, a big, beautiful fantasy. On a large format IMAX screen, the Oasis is a technological marvel, the CGI avatars astonishing. But the story, as adapted by Cline and Zak Penn, is as flimsily constructed as The Stacks. What’s missing are the stakes. Our heroes have no backstory and little arc. We follow them as they battle their way through a game so they can become the major shareholders of a tech company — not exactly “Braveheart.” It tricks you into thinking it has the stakes, distracting with the old razzle dazzle and hoping you don’t pop open the hood and kick the tires on this story, which turns out to be a lemon.
There’s also a serious problem with regard to the way fan culture is presented. While it pretends to be a tribute, it’s actually the nail in the coffin. With this film, the fanboy has officially jumped the shark. Here, all pop culture from the late 20th century and early 21st is lumped into one indistinguishable mob, from “Back to the Future” to ‘60s Batman to “The Shining” to “Beetlejuice” to “Lord of the Rings.” It’s not about hooking obsessively into one thing, but about mastering everything, and the notion loses all meaning. Sheridan’s desperately unconvincing delivery of the line “a fanboy knows a hater” doesn’t help. Being a fan used to mean having an emotional connection to a work of art — here’s it’s just a tool to level up, to win the prize.
As avatars battle, exploding into coins as they digitally die, there’s a creeping sense of existential dread for the soul of “Ready Player One,” which isn’t nearly as radical as it thinks it is. When the dust is settled, it’s just a shifting of power. The system stays the same. Spielberg and his team may have pored over the texture, richness and detail of this world, this game, but not the characters, or their story within it.
Ready Player One
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language. Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe. Director: Steven Spielberg. Running time: 140 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21 (2D, 3D), Edwards 9 (2D, 3D), Edwards 14 (2D, 3D), Edwards 12 (2D, 3D), Majestic 18 (2D, 3D), Village Cinema (2D, 3D), Parma Motor-Vu, Terrace Drive-In.