Back to the Past: "Ready Player One" fun but dampened by hollow core and so much muchness

Ready Player One (2018) 
140 min., rated PG-13.

Theoretically, “Ready Player One” should be a kicky, awesome ‘80s and ‘90s pop-culture fan’s wet dream. The major selling point of this adaptation of Ernest Cline’s popular 2011 sci-fi novel is fueled by nostalgia, spotting all the blink-and-you-miss-them Easter eggs of pop-culture icons from movies, TV, video games and comic books crammed into every nook and cranny. Adapted by author Cline and screenwriter Zak Penn (2008’s “The Incredible Hulk”), the movie is a torrent of breakneck-paced world-building and exposition, paper-thin characters and relatively low stakes, and as directed in the magical Amblin wheelhouse of Steven Spielberg (2017's "The Post"), it is an occasionally fun but more often bloated and exhausting extravaganza of sensory overload and so much muchness. If an escapist pop entertainment only had to succeed based on back-patting recognition, then this would be an unparalleled success. In reality, it’s closer to being a bummer.

The world is a dismal place in 2045 after corn syrup droughts and bandwidth riots. In Columbus, Ohio, teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in a shabby trailer on top of other trailers—a slum-like place called “The Stacks”—with his Aunt Alice (Susan Lynch) and her deadbeat boyfriend (Ralph Ineson). Like the rest of the population, Wade spends most of his time in the OASIS, a virtual reality created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who died five years ago and has left behind a competitive quest to unlock Easter Eggs and retrieve three keys leading to the ultimate prize: ownership of OASIS itself. When he’s in OASIS, Wade is Parzival and meets others who can’t share their real-world names, like the scrappy Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), the hulking Aech (Lena Waithe), Samurai warrior Daito (Win Morisaki) and ninja Sho (Philip Zhao). Meanwhile, the unscrupulous Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), head of conglomerate Innovative Online Industries, and his army of players called "Sixers" will prevent Wade and the others from winning at any cost so he can seize control of OASIS.

Essentially "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" in a phantasmagoric simulated world, “Ready Player One” rightfully sees a veteran filmmaker like Steven Spielberg digging into his kitchen-sink bag of tricks (and lens flares) and emulating the overactive imagination of the kid in all of us. Alas, this is arguably not Spielberg's level best, even if he’s clearly eager to please and getting the chance to play. The vast majority of the movie is spent in the OASIS, animated like “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” that noisy, overwhelmingly non-stop images pass by without much emotional connection. Most of these virtual-reality scenes are so frenetically staged but rarely genuinely exciting or stomach-dropping, and without the help of a few slowed-down frames, there is no time to breathe and take in every detail within this synthetic world. The lack of any true stakes is also a problem; gamers who die in the Oasis just lose the money they’ve accumulated and have to start over. That leaves a relentless “Where’s Waldo?” of Easter Eggs (The DeLorean! King Kong! The jeep-chasing T-rex! Freddy Krueger! Chucky! Beetlejuice! The Iron Giant!) and references to Buckaroo Benzai, John Hughes’ movies, the chest-burster from "Alien," to Nintendo 64’s “Goldeneye.” This hectic onslaught of pop culture is like a microcosm of the movie as a whole; it’s momentarily diverting to identify familiar iconography but always in a rush to get to the next set-piece.

If the movie spent more time with the flesh-and-blood Wade and Samantha than avatars Parzival and Art3mis, these characters might have been the heart of the story, but the talented Tye Sheridan (2016's "X-Men: Apocalypse") and Olivia Cooke (2018’s “Thoroughbreds”) can only equip themselves so much in playing underwritten conduits. Of the two, Cooke is the most engaging and breathes the most life into Art3mis/Samantha; even though she eventually has to become rescued, she has too much intelligence and too many abilities to be pigeonholed as a damsel-in-distress or just a love interest. Mark Rylance, when he shows up, does bring a sense of sensitivity and heartache as Steve Jobs-like figure James Halliday, while Ben Mendelsohn chews into his role of “dickweed” Nolan Sorrento, who can’t even get his John Hughes movie trivia right. T.J. Miller also gets handed a lot of shticky one-liners that only land half the time as IOI bounty hunter I-R0k.

Hollow and in need of a soul, “Ready Player One” is merely name-checking, goodies-spotting spectacle that only delivers when there's enough rest to drink in the sights. The grim reality of 2045 is no match for the colorful, anything-can-happen virtual reality full of pop media from the creator's youth, and while Steven Spielberg does pour on the childlike sentimentality in the end as he is wont to do, the viewer is too emotionally removed from the artificiality of the proceedings to feel much at all, even in a story where goodness and perseverance dominate greed. The needle drops on the soundtrack—Van Halen’s “Jump” to Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” to A-ha’s “Take On Me”—are at least irresistible, and a dance-off in a nightclub, introduced with New Order’s “Blue Monday,” is pretty joyous. However, out of all the individual set-pieces, there is exactly one downright inspired show-stopper, taking place inside an iconic horror film and evoking the playful giddiness and ticklish imagination that the rest of the movie never quite reaches. Revealing how this awe-inspiring sequence unfolds and how it simultaneously subverts and plays into expectations with laughs would be criminal, but sneaking in to just see this section might be worth the price of admission. “Fun” is the operative word here, but “Ready Player One” isn't as much fun as it should be and could have been so much more as not only candy for the eye but for the heart.

Grade: C +