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Game on! – ‘Ready Player One’

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The potency of nostalgia is well-documented at this point. It seems as though much of the pop culture we consume these days is inspired by (or straight-up copied from) source material that we already know and love. Revisiting what we loved in the past has become a cottage industry across all entertainment platforms.

And so it’s no surprise that Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel “Ready Player One” would be adapted to the big screen. It’s a story ready-made for the wistful remembrances of the current cultural climate, packed with wave after wave of period-specific nerd references aimed at striking the winsome sweet spot of one particular generation. We do so love to love what we already love.

But when you hand the reigns over to a pop cultural icon like Steven Spielberg, well … that’s when you take things to a whole new level. A level, I might add, that is actually a bit higher than might have been expected for a film like this one. It’s precisely the sort of sci-fi-steeped young-person adventure story at which Spielberg excels. It’s throwbacks within throwbacks within throwbacks – a meta-nostalgic moviegoing experience that in many ways outshines the perfunctory nature of its inspiration.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, “All Summers End”) is a young man living in Columbus, Ohio in the year 2045. He lives in an area called the Stacks, a de facto ghetto built of mobile homes stacked haphazardly atop one another and immobilized via steel beams.

His only respite from the bleak mundanity of his existence – a respite shared by most of the rest of the world – is the Oasis, a massive online world where people can escape their circumstances and live the lives they truly want to live.

It’s also up for grabs. When James Halliday (Mark Rylance, “Dunkirk”) - the designer of the Oasis – dies, he reveals a contest. It’s a hunt for an Easter egg somewhere in the Oasis; the person who finds it gains Halliday’s share of the company, valued at hundreds of billions of dollars.

The key? An encyclopedic knowledge of the pop culture minutiae with which Halliday was obsessed. Namely, the 1980s. Movies, music, video games, books, television – it’s all fair game. An entire subculture has sprung up around deep-cut knowledge in those arenas.

Wade – whose Oasis avatar is named Parzival – is a gunter, one of the many devoted to deciphering Halliday’s clues and tracking down the egg. His individual rival (and object of his affections) is Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, TV’s “Vanity Fair”). However, the real enemy is the shadowy corporation IOI, whose head honcho Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, “Darkest Hour”) uses hired mercenaries and “loyalty centers” that are essentially debtors’ prisons in an effort to solve Halliday’s puzzle with sheer numbers.

But when Wade wins the first challenge, gaining the first of three keys and becoming the first-ever entrant on the ubiquitous leaderboard, the race is truly on. As Parzival, he must join forces with Art3mis and other friends like Aech (Lena Waithe, TV’s “Master of None”) in an effort to complete the quest before Sorrento and IOI can gain control of the Oasis and turn it into something antithetical to Halliday’s utopian vision.

Full disclosure: “Ready Player One” sits squarely in my wheelhouse. The pop culture central to the plot is the same pop culture that accompanied my adolescence. I grew up with this stuff, so this movie hits me right in the nostalgia.

Spielberg knows his way around sci-fi adventure; this is not his first rodeo. And the idea that he’s building a future world driven by memories of the era in which he was having his most prominent sci-fi successes is actually kind of cool. He’s not afraid of big effects-laden set pieces; there are some pretty great ones scattered throughout the film’s runtime.

(There’s one in particular that should especially resonate with people in this neck of the woods, an extended scene with a setting familiar to fans of the work of a local world-famous author.)

However, the narrative aspect of things doesn’t quite reach the bar set by the spectacle. There’s an inescapable thinness to the story – not surprising when you’re talking about something built largely on the concept of “Remember this thing?” There’s a lot about the world of “Ready Player One” – fascinating details that point to larger questions – that gets glossed over or ignored in service to adding even more pop culture relics, though one could argue that going deeper (and thereby darker) goes against the basic ethos of the tale being told.

The performances range from solid to strong, though a lot of cracks can be hidden with the dazzling veneer of CGI. Sheridan is fine as Wade and a bit better as his avatar Parzival; his voice work was good, but physically, he reads a little off-brand Miles Teller. Cooke is good; she’s got a nice presence and seems like a game performer. The rest of Wade’s merry band handles their business in limited action; Waithe in particular has a certain something.

Rylance is delightful as Halliday – it’s as though he’s performing in a movie that’s slightly different than the one everyone else is in. And it works - he has such a wonderful quiet about him that translates beautifully. Mendelsohn usually gives good villain; this one is no exception. He’s like a stock corporate jerk, only infused with vague malevolence. He’s great. Oh, and Simon Pegg shows up for a couple of scenes, because how could you make this movie and NOT put Simon Pegg in it.

“Ready Player One” isn’t a transcendent piece of cinema. That’s OK. It IS a well-made piece of popcorn entertainment that also manages to be an odd ouroboros of layered Spielbergian nostalgia-ception. And that’s a pretty good time at the movies.

[4 out of 5]

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