Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” might mark the beginning of a new era in filmmaking or the end of an old one, but either way it feels like a failed experiment in building a new story on the carcasses of old movies, TV shows and video games.
Granted, I’m also not sure if this movie is aimed squarely at me or if I’m the last person who should see it: the screenplay by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (based on Cline’s novel) seems to be weaponizing my own personal nostalgia for John Hughes, Monty Python, “Buckaroo Banzai” and other objects of obsession from my late teens and early 20s. On paper, I’m this movie’s target audience, but in practice — to put it in terms of the film’s endless quoting and referencing — it’s like being trapped in the “Ironic Punishment Division” on “The Simpsons,” only I very quickly got sick of being force-fed all those delicious donuts.
“Ready Player One” takes a fairly recognizable through line right out of “Charlie”/”Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” — eccentric creator uses a contest to search for the heir to his cuckoo kingdom — and buries it in virtual reality simulations and a hodgepodge of pop-culture nostalgia. The results are a murky mishmash that reminds us that, for all of Spielberg’s many appreciable strengths as a filmmaker, comedy and animation aren’t necessarily at the top of the list. (By the same token, if you love “1941” and/or “Tintin,” this might be the movie for you.)
Our Wonka is Halliday (Mark Rylance), who created a vast and intricate virtual world known as Oasis, which has become a respite for residents of the grimy post-apocalyptic 2045. (Oasis is supposed to be a global phenomenon; we’re apparently not meant to notice that, in the non-virtual world, all of the characters in the film live in or near Columbus, Ohio.) Upon his death, Halliday announced that he hid three keys in the recesses of the Oasis, and whoever finds them will inherit ownership of the whole kit and caboodle.
While the evil IOI corporation enslaves workers in an elaborate attempt to solve the clues and find the keys, Oasis is also full of independent treasure hunters like young Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who is known in the virtual world as “Parzival,” or “Z” for short. When he and pals H (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki) aren’t playing Halliday’s games — including a virtual road race through Manhattan where the obstacles include dinosaurs and King Kong — they’re studying Halliday’s memories and his cultural obsessions for hints and guideposts.
Along the way, Z. falls for fellow treasure hunter Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, “Thoroughbreds”), although she is at first hesitant to let him get to know her in the real world as Samantha. But the closer that Wade/Z. and his friends get to Halliday’s treasure, the more that IOI bigwig Sorrento (an entertainingly hammy Ben Mendelsohn) tries to destroy them and take over Oasis for himself.
The main selling point of “Ready Player One” has been the plethora of pop-culture icons from anime, TV, video games and movies that are woven throughout the movie; there will no doubt be a fascinating Blu-ray extra in which “Pop-Up Video” bubbles appear throughout to point out all these hidden nuggets, but the camerawork is so hyperactive and the Oasis scenes are so often muddy that most of these details were lost.
Part of why we’re supposed to hiss Sorrento is his inability to tell “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (while, presumably, we notice that both “Watts” and “Samantha” are characters from “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Sixteen Candles,” respectively). But “Ready Player One” doesn’t do much with its trove of references beyond baking a Memberberry Pie. It certainly doesn’t earn the right to have its characters blunder through a Stanley Kubrick movie at one point, although if that segment plays for you, so will the rest of the film.
And as someone who was an architect of so much 1980s pop culture (as both a director and producer), maybe Spielberg wasn’t the right fit to examine these obsessions from a fanboy perspective. (Z. drives around in the DeLorean from the Spielberg-produced “Back to the Future,” for example, and at one point he purchases a “Zemeckis Cube” that allows him to reverse time.) It’s like when a “Saturday Night Live” cast member does a devastating impersonation of a celebrity, and then the real-life celebrity shows up to stand next to the impersonator, effectively killing the joke for all time.
Spielberg is too much of a craftsman not to create at least a little delight, and “Ready Player One” comes alive every so often, whether it’s a band of player-less instruments heralding the finding of Halliday’s first key or the chemistry between Sheridan and Cooke in those rare moments that they’re interacting as flesh and blood rather than ones and zeroes.
But overall, the movie left me feeling bombarded with images, bored by the lack of an interesting story, and irritated with my own cultural past. I’ve never been much of a video-game player, but by the finale, I was ready to “Leeroy Jenkins!” my way out of the theater.