Steven Spielberg is back in the suburbs for Ready Player One, but things look very different from the days of E.T. and Poltergeist. It’s 2045, “after the corn syrup drought” and other catastrophes, and our young hero lives in a ramshackle Columbus, Ohio, neighborhood of trailers stacked atop each other. Life is dreary for Wade (Tye Sheridan), so it’s no wonder he retreats into the popular virtual reality world known as OASIS.
Wade, in the guise of his VR avatar Parzival, hunts for a prize that could make him the owner of OASIS itself. The game’s late founder, an uber-nerd named Halliday (Mark Rylance), left behind a series of clues that half the world’s gamers are searching for. Parzival competes with the daredevil cyclist avatar Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), with whom he naturally falls in virtual love. Their biggest threat is a corporate creep (Ben Mendelsohn, in hissable form), who has an army of goggle-wearing gamers out looking for clues.
This fairly simple story is an excuse for Spielberg to unleash a torrent of hair-curling chase scenes in the virtual world. The best come early, as Parzival repeatedly tries to navigate an online New York while getting menaced by King Kong and a Jurassic Park dinosaur. That’s the other thing about this movie—it’s crammed with pop-culture references, plucked especially from 1980s cultural icons like Back to the Future and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. When Parzival conjures up the disco dance floor from 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, his friend yells out, “Old school!”—but isn’t all of this old school, for the 2045 generation? These aren’t just cute references, but part of the movie’s core. Mendelsohn’s bad guy gets exposed because he doesn’t know enough about John Hughes films. This makes Ready Player One kind of like walking through a Comic-Con, where everybody dressed as nerd-culture characters, exchanging obscure bits of trivia. If that sounds like fun, you’ll love this movie.
While Spielberg revels in this stuff, he’s also playing the role of concerned elder, cajoling these crazy kids to go outside and get some fresh air. Maybe that’s why the movie’s relentless fun feels just a little conflicted: Spielberg has no peers in constructing funhouse rides, but this movie (adapted from Ernest Cline’s novel) lets off a few dud fireworks.
A couple of things raise the bar. One is Rylance (an Oscar-winner for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies), whose performance as the socially awkward Halliday conveys more mystery and sadness about people who prefer fantasies to real life than the rest of the movie manages to do. The other saving grace is a wild sequence where Parzival and his friends enter Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, including the haunted Room 237 at the Overlook Hotel. It’s an audacious, technically jaw-dropping sequence, and it makes you wonder whether—for all the film’s lessons about valuing the real world over the virtual—Spielberg’s true desire is to go inside a movie and stay there forever, and ever, and ever….