A torrent of flashy computer-generated imagery and '80s nostalgia pour off the screen in Steven Spielberg’s sprawling movie about a future where everyone is wired into a virtual-reality universe. Rating: 2 stars out of 4.
I’ve seen “Ready Player One,” and now my eyeballs need a vacation.
The poor little dears are overstressed, overstimulated and overwhelmed by the torrent of flashy computer-generated imagery pouring off the screen in Steven Spielberg’s sprawling movie based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 sci-fi best-seller about a future where everyone is wired into a virtual-reality universe called OASIS. (Cline shares screenplay credit with Zak Penn.)
Novel and movie are tech-drenched valentines to ’80s pop culture, an era beloved by Cline. The iconic disco-dance scene from “Saturday Night Fever”? Re-created by floaty hordes of midair dancers, staying alive to Bee Gees’ warbling. “Back to the Future’s” time-traveling gull-wing DeLorean races madly through the streets of a virtual New York City, outpacing “Smokey and the Bandit’s” black Trans Am and “Speed Racer’s” swoopy Mach 5 while King Kong leaps from the Empire State Building and “Jurassic Park’s” T-Rex grabs for automotive snacks to go-go-go.
All that, and so very much more besides.
The time is 2045 and, in the words of the main character, an obsessive video gamer and ’80s nostalgia buff named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), “these days, reality is a bummer.” It’s dystopia time, where people have little money and everyone lives in crappy mobile homes stacked atop one another. To escape, citizens slip on virtual-reality goggles and enter OASIS where, by adopting online identities called avatars, they reinvent themselves as warriors, wizards and whatever else their imaginations conjure.
The core of the story is that one of the creators of OASIS, a Steve Jobs-style mogul named James Halliday (Spielberg favorite Mark Rylance, in an assortment of risible fright wigs) has died, leaving as his legacy a challenge to the world to embark on an Easter egg hunt. First one to solve a series of puzzles rooted in obscure pop-culture trivia will win his fabulous fortune (half a trillion bucks) and ownership of OASIS. Everyone wants in on that, including a rapacious megacorporation that will stop at nothing, including murder, to win the big prize.
The pop-culture nuggets — or rather in the parlance, Easter eggs — are strewn in mind-boggling profusion throughout. Some are seen but briefly (say hey, “Child’s Play’s” Chucky and “Alien’s” chestbuster) and others warrant much longer visits. A whole section, not derived from the book, is a slavish re-creation of “The Shining’s” Overlook Hotel, complete with bloody elevators and creepy twins.
It’s all designed to encourage in-the-know fans of the era to geek out at all the visual and musical goodies on display. Van Halen’s “Jump” and Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” are among the tunes prominently featured on the soundtrack.
The movie diverges from the novel in a number of significant ways, one of them being the fact that the search in the book is a complex and devilishly difficult step-by-step process while in the picture characters breeze through it with stunning ease.
There’s a romance here, between Wade and a feisty gamer named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a big-eyed virtual-world knockout with a flame-hued porcupine-quill hairstyle. The gradual building of their budding relationship in the book is put on fast-forward by Spielberg.
He treats the human-interaction sections of the story almost as speed bumps. The emphasis here is on the splashy spectacle with those insider-knowledge elements jammed together in a frenetic hodgepodge. Also, at two hours and 20 minutes, “Ready Player One” is just too darn long.
★★ “Ready Player One,” with Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance, Ben Mendelsohn, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Simon Pegg. Directed by Steven Spielberg, from a screenplay by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, based on a book by Cline. 140 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language. Opens March 30 at several theaters.