“Ready Player One” entertains but lacks compelling story

Rating: 3.5/5 Mii Avatars

No other film in 2018 thus far will satisfy pop-culture fanatics like Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One.” Viewers looking for a compelling story, however, will leave the theater feeling the film was a missed opportunity.

Based on Ernest Cline’s best-selling novel, the film centers around the young Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan, who lives in a dystopian Columbus, Ohio, in the year 2025. Society has nearly fallen apart, and many people seek refuge from the harsh real world within a virtual reality simulation called the “OASIS,” which provides them with activities for work, education and entertainment in a highly stylized and expansive universe. The creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, played by Mark Rylance, reveals he has hidden an “Easter Egg” that will give complete control over his digital world to whoever finds it. Halliday has also hidden three keys, only acquired through death-defying challenges, each revealing a different clue to the egg’s whereabouts. Watts, using a visually dull avatar named Parzival, becomes involved in a frantic race to find the egg, while being pursued by the corrupt IOI corporation, led by an over-the-top Ben Mendelsohn.

“Ready Player One” feels like a film designed to appeal to the geek within us all, sacrificing emotional heft and dramatic stakes for simplistic, yet undeniably fun, popcorn entertainment.

Spielberg’s filmmaking is the real star of the show, showcasing his knack for staging incredibly well-choreographed action sequences. Having the film set within a virtual world lets him unleash his full creative potential, bombarding viewers with sound, explosions and nonstop appearances from iconic characters in pop culture, primarily from the 1980s. This includes the murderous Chucky doll, among others.

Many action sequences throughout the film, particularly a downright spectacular racing sequence at the beginning of the film, send chills down viewer’s spines through sheer technical mastery. Spielberg deploys elaborate camera movements to seamlessly transition from one jaw-dropping sight to the next, forcing viewers along for the ride. This sensory overload will not be to everyone’s taste, however.

Spielberg’s adoration of the film medium is fully apparent in “Ready Player One.” Who would have thought you’d ever see appearances from the Delorean, King Kong and the Iron Giant in the same movie? Nearly every scene in “Ready Player One” is destined to put a smile on the faces of people like myself who have embraced pop culture like a best friend.

When the film comes back to the real world, however, it loses much of its infectious spirit, mainly from the lack of strong characters.

It’s a shame Spielberg neglects to give the actual characters of his “Ready Player One” adaptation the attention they deserve. Watts undergoes a predictable hero’s journey character arc, which lacks any sort of surprise by the time the film concludes. His troubled home-life — living with an abusive aunt and uncle who are completely obsessed with the OASIS — isn’t developed enough for viewers to care.

The malevolent IOI corporation has simplistic motives that lack nuance. Even so, as a villainous corporation that could have come straight from a Saturday morning television show, it suffices.

For every scene of dramatic tension in “Ready Player One,” there’s 10 scenes full of cartoonish action and occasionally juvenile humor.    

Watts’ romance with Olivia Cooke’s “Art3mis” character feels rushed and groan-inducingly cliched, even though Sheridan and Cooke give solid performances.

The film’s two-and-a-half hour runtime feels ridiculously long for the story Spielberg’s trying to tell. So many pop culture references are crammed into nearly every single scene that one might wonder if they were all actually necessary.

A technically glorious film, “Ready Player One” nevertheless fails to live up to any of the movies it so pervasively references.