Never, ever underestimate Steven Spielberg. That’s the biggest takeaway from “Ready Player One,” an immersive sci-fi spectacle about a future overrun by virtual reality gaming, and the world’s most famous commercial director has transformed it into a mesmerizing blockbuster steeped in callbacks to the best of them. It runs too long and drags a bunch in its final third, but make no mistake: This is Spielberg’s biggest crowdpleaser in years, a CGI ride that wields the technology with an eye for payoff. It’s also his most stylized movie since “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” though a lot more fun, with a cavalcade of visuals leaving the impression that he watched a bunch of Luc Besson movies and decided he could outdo them all. The result is an astonishing sci-fi spectacle and a relentless nostalgia trip at once.
Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel compensated for its literary shortcomings with a phenomenal premise, a precise futuristic vision just familiar enough to seem viable. In the year 2045, much of the world lies in poor shape and the bulk of humanity wastes its days in the Oasis, a massive virtual reality designed by the late billionaire tech genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance, seen in flashbacks under an unkempt wig and a strange American accent) and his business partner (Simon Pegg). Diehard players wear avatars of their choosing as they roam through the Oasis’ sprawling galaxies, engaging with a plethora of pop-culture reference points (Batman! Transformers! “Back to the Future”!) that inspired geeky Hallidan, an ’80s kid who probably grew up on Spielberg movies, too. The premise is ideally suited for a pricey studio production: The bulk of its scenes unfold in a digital world, opening the floodgates for an overwhelming CGI pileup that steals from revered big-budget movies because that’s what the players do, too.
Spielberg and screenwriter Zak Penn are faithful to the book’s protagonist, disgruntled Ohio orphan Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) who escapes a drab routine with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend by living in a trailer nearby. Most of the time, he’s buried in his VR headset and wandering the Oasis as Parzival, who looks like a cheap Final Fantasy knockoff, and hangs with his best pal Aech (Lena Waithe). The friends have never met in real life, but they don’t really need to — their entire social lives exist within the confines of the Oasis, where they join an endless stream of players in following the breadcrumbs Halliday left when he died: Find all the clues leading to a series of hidden keys in his world, and his company’s stock belongs to you.
This futuristic Willy Wonka setup leads players to engage in a trepidatious online racetrack populated by a hilarious range of threats, from King Kong to a T.rex straight out of “Jurassic Park” (one of the few times Spielberg references one of his own credits). Wade’s an expert gamer, but nobody gets past Kong — not even Ar3mis (Olivia Cook), the pink-haired speed demon with whom Wade’s utterly smitten. There’s nothing particularly unique about Wade, but the movie’s throwbacks extend to its live-action scenes as well: He’s the typical white kid ready to rule the world, a Spielberg staple since “E.T.”, and through perseverance he finally cracks the code to get to the first key. Intrigued (and possibly a little smitten herself), Ar3mis joins forces with Wade/Parzival and Aech in a quest to find the other keys.
This prolonged setup inevitably leads to some major complications courtesy of the movie’s central villain, corporate overlord Nolan (Ben Mendelsohn), who employs an entire army to find the keys before Wade and his pals. Aided by a gothic monster henchman named i-R0k (who talks like Skeletor and sounds, hilariously, like T.J. Miller), Nolan concocts an evil scheme to take control of the Oasis before those annoying kids nab the prize. From there, “Ready Player One” trips over its exciting momentum, tumbling into a series of flashy battle sequences and rapid-fire strategy sessions until it finally winds back to a satisfying conclusion.
Nevertheless, the first hour marks some of the most viscerally engaging filmmaking Spielberg has ever done, starting with the moment Wade speeds through a virtual racetrack in a DeLorean time machine (Robert Zemeckis gets more than one nod) and continuing into a holographic showdown that pitches into the real world.
In Cline’s book, a lethal twist leads the character into a bleak, solitary chapter of his life that Spielberg’s too earnest to touch; instead, the movie becomes a triumphant tale of gamers taking charge on the battlefield. “Ready Player One” wants to make people who love its references celebrate them all over again. While it lacks edge, subtlety, or the genuine dread to explore life in a complete technocracy, it does find the Iron Giant battling Mechagodzilla while a rock-heavy soundtrack featuring everything from Blondie to the Bee Gees underscores the mayhem.
Penn’s screenplay (co-credited to Kline) lands on a few enticing moments outside the Oasis, most of which revolve around Mendolsohn’s character, a wonderful caricature of an executive eager to exploit his product even as he knows nothing about it. (When Wade challenges Nolan with trivia about John Hughes movies, Nolan shoots back with help from a lackey whispering the answers in his ear.)
“You think I’m just a corporate asshole,” Nolan says, and Spielberg may as well be saying the same thing to a skeptical audience: On paper, “Ready Player One” certainly looks like another ill-conceived Hollywood product, but this 71-year-old Hollywood veteran is determined to make something better than that. The movie’s greatest sequence is a prolonged homage to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” too rich with details to spoil here, but needless to say, this is not a brainless blockbuster so much as an attempt to elevate the blockbuster form in its own language.
Once “Ready Player One” winds down, it can’t match the ecstatic contact high of encountering the movie’s trickery from the outset. The bulk of the live-action scenes lack the crisp energy of the Oasis, and Spielberg can’t match the forward momentum with character depth to spare. Wade and his pals have backstories, but they mostly just dangle in the background. This should come as no surprise in a movie that fetishizes its technological polish. As one savvy player puts it, “Reality is a bummer.”
Eventually, “Ready Player One” becomes the very thing its characters admire, a preponderance of commercial entertainment smashed together into singular blockbuster chaos. Spielberg’s roving digital camera (for the first time, this celluloid fetishist has reason to abandon ship) is aided by effective motion-capture performances and ever-changing landscapes. None of that changes the retrograde gender politics: This is a typical boy’s movie that will strike younger audiences as being out of sync with the current moment (just imagine what might happen if Waithe and Sheridan traded places), but then, so’s the nostalgia-laden Oasis.
“Ready Player One” is one of the more clever excuses to run wild with special effects. Of course, that outcome makes sense from a filmmaker whose entire legacy has been steeped in showmanship. As it cycles through dozens of references to past achievements, “Ready Player One” amounts to a frenetic attempt at remaking the past 30-odd years of popular culture by one of its greatest architects. Without seeing the movie, it’s hard to imagine anyone could turn it into a satisfying product; by the end, it’s clear that only Steven Spielberg can.
“Ready Player One” premiered at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. It opens March 29.