Watching “Ready Player One,” I thought more than once of a much-circulated Internet meme: that photo of Steve Buscemi from “30 Rock” where the 50-something actor wears a backward baseball cap, totes a skateboard, and exclaims to some off-camera teenagers, “How do you do, fellow kids?”
Based on a hugely popular book by Ernest Cline (who co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn), the movie is Steven Spielberg’s attempt to plug himself back into the zeitgeist with a rip-roaring, cutting-edge, virtual-reality action fantasia. Also, to remind us that he helped invent the modern blockbuster genre 40 years ago. How do you do, fellow kids?
Because Spielberg remains one of our best, most natural filmmakers, “Ready Player One” works more frequently than you might expect. Certainly it’s a smarter experience than the shallow theme park ride suggested by the trailers. But it’s also a movie whose tired hero-boy clichés aren’t enlivened by a drab leading actor. It overuses ’80s nostalgia as shorthand for genuine emotional involvement, and it presents us with a rapturous digital wonderworld only to sternly lecture us that reality is the better value.
Well, it is, but after an overlong 138 minutes of the most eye-bugging pixels studio money can render, that moral seems a little hypocritical. “Ready Player One” stars Tye Sheridan (“Mud,” “X-Men: Apocalypse”) as Wade Watts, an orphaned teenager in 2045 Columbus, Ohio. In this future America wobbling on the precipice of dystopia, citizens live in “The Stacks” — vertical trailer parks made of girders and RVs — and pour their money and time into the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a virtual-reality landscape where anything is possible and they can be any avatar-selves they choose.
In other words, the America of tomorrow has given up on reality, which isn’t as far from today as one might think — a provocative notion that “Ready Player One” puts on the table and mostly leaves there. Instead, we dive into the dazzling OASIS, where Wade becomes the elfin teen adventurer Parzival, hanging with his hulking best buddy Aech (pronounced “H” and voiced by an excellent Lena Waithe) and running physically impossible road races across a VR New York City where the challenges include a T. Rex and King Kong.
That opening action scene is a reminder that A) Spielberg can choreograph action with a skill to leave an audience gasping for breath and B) modern digital effects can do just about anything (in this case turn the lanes of the Manhattan Bridge into loop-de-loop Hot Wheels tracks). The race is for a hidden key, one of three “Easter eggs” squirreled away in the OASIS by its late creator, James Halliday, the film’s Willy Wonka figure and its most touching lost boy. As embodied by that great changeling Mark Rylance — he won a 2015 supporting actor Oscar for Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” — Halliday is a gentle genius somewhere out on the spectrum; he’s the real-est thing in all of “Ready Player One,” and you wish the movie were about him.
Instead, it’s about Wade/Parzival’s dash to get the keys and the clues ahead of the film’s villain, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), a creepy corporate smoothie who wants to monetize the OASIS with ads. What’s at stake? Uh . . . the ownership of the OASIS, which seems a little paltry given that Sorrento has half the population in hock to his VR enhancements, desperate to “make coin,” and threatened with detention in his debt-collecting “loyalty centers.”
Some juicy real-world political parallels flicker at the edges of “Ready Player One,” but the movie would rather tend to the vroom-vroom, the gee-look, and the remember-when. There’s a tough-talking lady adventurer named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke of “Thoroughbreds”) who has five times the nerve and 10 times the personality of our hero, but even she’s required to melt into his arms sooner or later.
The oddest aspect of “Ready Player One” is its reliance on shout-outs to the 1980s in a movie set six decades later. Because Halliday filled his digital universe with the pop junk of his own childhood, the citizens of the OASIS are schooled in the catechism of “Back to the Future” and Van Halen, “The Iron Giant” and Duke Nukem, Stephen King’s “Christine” and James Cameron’s “Terminator 2.” Toward the end, when we’re given a vision of Halliday as a boy sitting slack-jawed before an early video game, the movie raises and quickly discards a disturbing notion: that an asocial savant grew up to seduce the entire population of Earth into his hermetically sealed obsessions.
The ’80s stuff is there because it makes audiences in 2018 feel good, of course, although you may wonder if today’s younger audiences really recognize or care about “Beetlejuice” or “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” (How do you do, fellow kids.) I imagine this worked more organically in the novel, where readers could digest and parse the umpteen references at their own pace, rather than ducking them like incoming dodgeballs. You feel like you’re ticking items off a Trivia Night list, and the only time the gambit really works is a head-spinning visit to the world of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” Parzival and Art3mis and Aech placed with liberating wit into the actual lobby footage of the 1980 film.
It all builds to a battle between the denizens of the OASIS and Sorrento’s minions that feels like every digitized End Times donnybrook the movies have sold us for the past 10 years. By then, the cohesive and enjoyable early scenes have turned rushed as the film sprints to keep up with developments in the book; after a late-film power-up in which the characters dash between their virtual and actual worlds, “Ready Player One” limps to a tidy, over-explained conclusion.
There’s a weirder, better story in here, one that would probably give us less Parzival and more Mark Rylance, but it also wouldn’t make nearly as much money or stroke an audience’s ego. Spielberg’s on board because he’s our generation’s master movie fantasist, not because he wants to peer too much under the film’s thematic hood. If “Ready Player One” wants to insist that reality’s all that matters, why is it so much better at keeping us in the dark?
READY PLAYER ONE
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, based on the novel by Cline. Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Mark Rylance, Lena Waithe, Ben Mendelsohn. At multiplexes in Boston and suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Natick and Reading. 138 minutes. PG-13 (sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity, and language).