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‘Ready Player One’ is mildly pleasant escape from real world

April 7, 2018

You don't have to have the intellectual capacity of Max Headroom to enjoy "Ready Player One," but chances are good that the more you are brushed up on your pop culture knowledge, the richer the film's returns will be.

It's a nonstop binge "I Love the '80s and '90s" confection that dissolves moments after it's consumed. That may be disappointing to some, considering it's directed by one of the men who helped sculpt the eras' pop culture – Steven Spielberg – but it's an engaging journey nonetheless.

Based on the massively overhyped book by Ernest Cline, "Ready Player One" plops us into 2045, when we are living in an overpopulated hellhole where trailer parks not only sprawl out, but up.

To cope with such a miserable existence, many escape into the world of The Oasis, an online universe where people can be whomever and wherever they wish. (Already, this setting can feel dated, as the book was released in 2011, when "Second Life" was at fever pitch.)

And despite the action taking place 27 years in the future, most in The Oasis still have a fondness for '80s and '90s culture, as avatars of Freddy Krueger, "The Shining" (film adaptation), Super Mario, John Hughes films and the homicidal doll Chucky are all still held with reverence.

The Oasis was created by James Halliday (played by Mark Rylance), a socially regressed genius who recently died, but left behind his fortune to the player who could solve a series of challenges buried deep within his creation.

Among those trying to claim the keys to the kingdom is Wade Watts (played blankly by Ty Sheridan), who lives online as Parzival, a hunky anime-like heartthrob who likes to hangs with a trio of pals online who he has never met in person. They include Aech (played by Lena Waithe), Sho (played by Phillip Zhao) and Daito (played by Win Morisaki).

During a particular game, the group encounters Art3mis (played by Olivia Cooke), another Oasis denizen who is known for her mad skills. They soon join allegiance against Sorrento (played by Ben Mendelsohn, who bears more than a passing resemblance to "The Breakfast Club's" antagonistic assistant principal Vernon). Sorrento was a one-time intern of Halliday's, but is now the head of the nefarious Innovative Online Industries, which enlists armies of players to win Halliday's hidden fortune. The film throws out a series of challenges to its leads, which test not only their dexterity, but also their moral compass. Think of it as "Charlie and the Arcade Factory."

The film initially fumbles in its ability to introduce us to this world, but leave it to Spielberg to quickly win us over, and the film succeeds in spite of itself.

My giving this film a pass may seem hypocritical, considering I often shun "Family Guy" for its endless barrage of referential "jokes" that are little more than innuendo-laced shout-outs to what's trending on Buzzfeed. But even though the references are shoehorned into "Ready Player One," Spielberg puts in enough unified technical dazzle and keeps references to a very targeted audience (geeks and gamers, mostly).

It runs out of steam before reaching the finish line (the film is 2 1/2 hours, after all). One wishes Spielberg could have done more with the trove of referential material at his disposal, but he still manages to craft an engaging ride while we are visiting.

Neither visionary nor groundbreaking, "Ready Player One" is instead a mildly pleasant escape from the real world and an opportunity to plug into a virtual one for a couple hours. It may not be an oasis, but Spielberg saves it from being a mirage.

  • Rob is the head of the English and Communications Department at Delaware Technical Community College, where he teaches film. He is also one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society and is lead entertainment writer for Influx Magazine. Email him at filmrob@gmail.com.