Spielberg's Ready Player One: '80s-centric trivia-orgy is a fast-moving mess

Liam Lacey

Rating: C

Steven Spielberg's long and reference-stuffed new gamer movie, Ready Player One, is set in a bummed-out future of the 2040s, where teen Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), lives in a slum in "the world's fastest-growing city" Columbus, Ohio.

He shares a trailer, piled atop several other trailers, with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend. And like most people in this climate-ruined, economically-depressed world, Wade takes any opportunity to put on his VR glasses and get lost in another, more exciting world, where the camera floats free of gravity and animated figures dance and fight and chase each other.

 Tye Sheridan finds a whole new world in Ready Player One

Tye Sheridan finds a whole new world in Ready Player One

Spielberg's film moves back-and-forth between the down-beat real world and the sparkly virtual one. Once plugged in, Wade reappears as his animated avatar, an ashen-haired teen named Parzival, whose task is to solve an elaborate game of 1980s trivia and video game adventures that will make him rich and powerful. And he'll probably get the girl, too, after he meets her.

If you think you've seen all this before, that's sort of the point. Ready Player One, is based on a best-selling 2011 young adult novel by Ernest Cline, a coming-of-age quest story with many parallels, but perhaps best described as a mash-up of Tron and Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  

The virtual world in Cline's book was created by an eccentric billionaire and ‘80s pop culture nut, James Halliday, who has died and left behind a gamer's legacy: Whoever can crack his series of 1980s-related puzzles will find a hidden "Easter egg," inherit his fortune and control of his game world.

Cline's book is a nearly encyclopedic celebration of fanboy culture (he also wrote the screenplay for the 2009 movie about Star Wars geeks, Fanboys). It's stuffed with references to early video games, Reagan-era teen-oriented movies and a spectrum of pop music, represented in the film's indiscriminate Top 40-ish soundtrack, including Van Halen, Prince, Depeche Mode and Hall and Oates.

 Just another fast-moving '80s reference

Just another fast-moving '80s reference

The plot is your basic plug-in quest tale: While the Easter egg hunters or "gunters," like Wade and his friend Aech (a sort of Vin Diesel-like African-American giant robot) work solo, they're competing against an army of uniformed hunters employed by an internet company named IOI (think Google), which is run by the sneering villain Nolan Sorrento (Aussie actor Ben Mendelsohn) who wants to take over the virtual world so he can fill it with adertising, the dastardly jerk.

Soon Wade/Parzival meets up with lithesome lemur-eyed girl called Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who rides around on a red motorcycle that matches her hair. In real life, she's Samantha, who has a port-wine stain on her face (I like to think it's a secret tribute to eighties' icon, Mikhail Gorbachev but I doubt it.) Other friendly competitors include two Japanese players, Daito (Win Morisaki) and Shoto (Philip Zhao), whose connections seem tenuous.

The interest here isn't the ‘what’ of the story but the ‘how.’ Spielberg and scriptwriters, Cline and Zak Penn, have substantially reworked the book into what amounts to a feature-length sizzle reel of special effects, pebbled with pop culture references. The best is a holographic museum, overseen by a robot butler, where the inventor's life is represented in scenes played out by life-size Sims, who can be studied, stopped and rewound for clues. We dip back to 1977 to include a gravity-free dance sequence from Saturday Night Fever, forward to the set a few of the characters in the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick's The ShiningThere's a nod to Spielberg's own Jurassic Park, with a T-Rex chasing a car down the freeway.  At one point, there's a mass army, including robots, which I couldn't identify (Lord of the Rings meets Transformers) and The Iron Giant pops up here too. 

I suppose this should be fun, in a geeky way, but there's so little humour and character engagement available in this mix of nostalgia and action-adventure that it never finds a groove. The experience is like watching high-speed drone footage, flying over a flea market, filled with outdated game consoles, posters, forgotten DVDs and CDs. Even at two-and-a-half hours long, the movie feels over-stuffed and rushed.

Ready Player One brings to mind another '80s artifact (okay, '79), Spielberg's misbegotten attempt at a blockbuster comedy, 1941, which the  director himself compared to having your head stuck in a pinball machine and having someone continually hit “tilt”

Ready Player One:  Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by   Zak Penn and Earnest Cline. Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn and Mark Rylance.  Ready Player One opens Thursday at Cineplex Yonge-Dundas, Scotiabank Theatre, Cineplex Varsity, Cineplex Yonge-Eglinton and Silvercity Yorkdale.