The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"READY PLAYER ONE"

Ready Player One

Ernest Cline's 2011 novel “Ready Player One” is like “Fifty Shades of Grey” for '80s pop culture obsessives. So who better to direct the film version than Steven Spielberg, the man who practically defined pop culture during that decade? This is the filmmaker's attempt to work some of his old magic – to make a big, exciting, escapist blockbuster adventure. He hasn't done that in quite a while. Turns out he still has the touch. Ready Player One is ridiculously entertaining.

The story takes place a few decades in the future. Most of humanity plays a virtual reality game called OASIS that allows them to choose their own avatars, often inspired by popular videogames, comic books, and movies. The eccentric creator of OASIS, Halliday (Mark Rylance), dies, leaving behind a message that an “Easter Egg” is hidden within the game. Whoever finds it will gain total control over OASIS, as well as his half-a-trillion dollar fortune.

One person who really wants to win is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an impoverished young man who goes by the name Parzival in the game. He sets out to unlock the mysteries of Halliday's mind in order to accomplish this task. Wade is not the only one on the hunt. He meets, then teams with, Samantha (Olivia Cooke), a.k.a Art3mis, another hardcore gamer. Then there's Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the head of a corporation that employs hundreds of gamers in an organized effort to find the egg. Winning at all costs is his objective.

What follows is a thrilling journey through 1980's entertainment, with a dash of the late '70s and early '90s thrown in for good measure. Part of the pleasure of Ready Player One is noticing the clever ways that familiar elements are utilized. An early scene finds Wade engaged in a race where he drives the DeLorean from Back to the Future, outruns the Batmobile, and encounters King Kong. Another challenge requires Wade, Samantha, and some friends to enter a classic horror movie to retrieve a clue. The grand finale is a large-scale battle in which various pop culture icons can be spotted fighting. Many of the shout-outs are obvious, others more subtle. The more you know about entertainment from that decade, the more enjoyment you'll get.

If all the movie had to offer was an endless assortment of references, it wouldn't amount to a whole lot. Spielberg, working from a screenplay adaptation by Cline and Zak Penn, is too smart for that. He keeps the primary focus on the search for the Easter Egg, emphasizing what it means to the various characters. For Wade, it's a way out of poverty. For Samantha, it's a chance to be the ultimate gamer. For Sorrento, greed is the primary factor. Ready Player One builds excitement by showing how they compete to solve Halliday's riddles, all of which are based upon his own pop culture obsessions.

There's also a healthy emphasis on the way the characters interact with each other. Wade's best friend is Aech (Lena Waithe), someone he trusts implicitly despite their never having met face-to-face. Midway through the movie, Samantha reveals to Wade one of the biggest reasons why she prefers to live inside the OASIS rather than the real world, and her vulnerability is touching. The vast majority of the film is computer animated, but the characters shine through whether they're CGI or live-action thanks to a story that, at heart, is about people using technology to avoid reality.

Sheridan (Mud) and Cooke (Bates Motel) are both terrific, supplying a human touch even when in avatar form. The standout performance, though, comes from Oscar winner Mark Rylance. It would be hard to think of a less-likely actor to play a pop culture-obsessed computer programmer. Neverthless, Spielberg's decision to cast him is inspired. Rylance puts his own quirky spin on the “nerd” stereotype, investing it with dignity and emotional frailty. He provides the soul of the movie.

Ready Player One puts the pedal to the floor from the very beginning and doesn't let up. Spielberg's camera is constantly moving. If someone launches into the air, the camera launches with them. It swirls around people, moves alongside and under vehicles, and swoops through OASIS environments. You really do feel as though you've entered the world's most awesome videogame. The pace never slows, which – combined with a solid human factor – makes this a one-of-a-kind thrill ride that provides an abundance of fun.

( 1/2 out of four)

Note: For various reasons, the film had to change some of the key pop culture references from the novel, but the replacements work, and they maintain the feel of what was on the page.


Ready Player one is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language. The running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes.


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