Movie Review: “Ready Player One”

“Ready Player One” is the geekiest movie ever made. This conclusion should be a compliment, coming from a critic who has identified as a geek much of his life, yet there’s something gauche about Steven Spielberg’s nerd nirvana. This gamer fantasia is so self-conscious, and so stuffed with references designed to elicit Pavlovian responses from the comic-con crowd, that it becomes little more than a canvas of shout-outs, some obvious and others subtle. It swims in the pioneering DNA of others, angling to please by association. It’s geek culture jumping the shark.

Mean as this might sound, “Ready Player One” is a harmless trifle that just wants to be loved, and many will respond to it in kind. But at two hours and 20 minutes of eccentric allusions and CGI excess, it’s an exasperating abdication of talent and resources for the shallowest of ends.

Based on Ernest Cline’s young-adult best-seller of the same name, the film is set in a drab industrial future, circa 2045, where the sky in Columbus is perpetually overcast and where residents dwell in skeletal tenements. Environmental crises, mentioned only in passing, have left the planet shell-shocked, but at least drones can still supply hungry Ohioans with their Pizza Hut fixes.

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There’s also the OASIS, a VR platform to which the desperate proletariat escapes most of its waking lives. Like Second Life on steroids, the OASIS offers pulse-pounding adventure, libidinous fantasy and the illusion of possibility, a democratic playground that attracts American housewives, Japanese businessmen and tunnel-visioned children alike.

We learn the basics from Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teenage gamer operating under the avatar Parzival, whose interest in OASIS is more than a pastime. He’s a “gunter”—aka an “egg hunter,” one of the players devoted to uncovering the secrets buried in the ones and zeroes by the game’s late founder, James Halliday (Mark Rylance, terrific as always). The first player to unearth three hidden keys will receive Halliday’s fortune of more than a trillion dollars. The task is monumentally difficult, and it requires an encyclopedic knowledge of the ‘80s pop-culture with which Halliday obsessed. Hence, the movie’s references, which run the gamut from Kubrick films to anime characters to New Wave music.

From my own video-gaming youth, I remember the hunt for these “Easter eggs” embedded by waggish creators, like the game of Pong hidden in a “Mortal Kombat” Nintendo game. “Ready Player One” is about an Easter egg hunt that is itself an Easter egg hunt of a movie, where the torrent of winking allusions whiz across the screen at a dizzying rate. And it opens Easter weekend. Cute.

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Wade meets a love interest during his “gunting,” ultimately forming a band of gunters with specialized talents. Their quest is challenged by a sinister corporation called Innovative Online Industries, run by a soulless suit named Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), at whom we’re invited to hiss. The world Spielberg has fashioned is one in which nerds are cool and unstoppable, and where businessmen are hopeless squares who leave their VR passwords in plain view.

This is a reductive movie so bubbling with clichés that you wonder if Spielberg and his writers are serious. It seems like they are, but they’re hoping the cheeky call-backs to the culture of Gen-Xers’ youth will make up for the film’s lack of depth or originality. Despite filling every corner of every frame with data, “Ready Player One” is one of Spielberg’s most lifeless, inconsequential movies, devoid of the warmth of his best fantasies. It spends so much time in virtual reality that it scarcely recognizes the dilapidated world outside the game, missing an opportunity for a futuristic cautionary tale a la “A.I.” or “Minority Report.”

Instead, it magnifies his worst tendencies as a commercial director. His sometimes-effective propensity to stretch sequences out nearly to their breaking point feels here like a stunt, and his penchant for sentimentality is unearned. All that’s left is the nostalgic scavenger hunt, and we don’t even get a prize for playing.

“Ready Player One” opens today at most area theaters.