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Ernest Cline’s 2011 dystopian YA novel ‘Ready Player One’ struck a nerve with self-described fanboys, sending readers into a tizzy of nostalgia-fueled nerdgasms. Many gyrated over the book’s overindulgent references to 80s pop culture, from coin-op arcade games to deeply engrained new wave synthpop cuts to the nerdcore iconography of John Hughes films. I personally found the book dull, monotonous and underwritten; reference-laden light reading that worked more as a pop culture checklist than an actual story. Worse yet, Cline’s book functioned as an unchecked celebration of deep-dive fandom in a time where fandom has become hostile, exclusionary and often vile. 

When blockbuster god Steven Spielberg took the reins to a Ready Player One film adaptation, my excitement dial didn’t waver. This simply wasn’t a project that interested me and even the king of pop entertainment himself couldn’t get me amped for Cline’s ejaculatory overload of nostalgia unleashed on the big screen. When Spielberg’s latest debuted at SXSW to near universal appreciation (if not doe-eyed love), I chalked it up to that ravenous Austin crowd, three or more beers deep and delighted to see King Kong and the Iron Giant finally sharing the big screen.

Ready Player One, a film I evidently wasn’t looking forward to in the least bit, admittedly took me by surprise. I found myself wrapped up in a Spielbergian blanket of giddy family-friendly storytelling, the pop auteur adapting the fun-loving core of Cline’s adventure, abandoning the narrative tedium for (mostly) marvelous spectacle, masterfully translating the hardcore nostalgia of Cline’s reference-heavy writing while freeing it of its oppressive omnipresence. His is a world that interacts with nostalgia regularly but doesn’t use it as a crutch in quite the same way that Cline’s book did. While Cline leaned on familiarity to excite, Spielberg crafts daring set pieces and stunning spectacle that feels both dazzling and new, the pinnacle of 21st century digital marksmanship, complete with southpaw hits of visual references to cinema’s past. The nostalgia is thick but it’s still the icing rather than the whole kit and caboodle

From Alan Silverstri’s (The Avengers) opulent, wide-eyed score to Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski’s (A.I., Minority Report) upbeat, eye-candy cinematography, Ready Player One inspires no shortage of wonder. A showcase of ravishing production design, Spielberg’s reintroduction to blockbuster fare finds a director who has stepped away from his bread and butter for far too long, chomping at the bit to prove his magical eye for big screen cinema in a way that no one else can gracefully imitate. For Ready Player One’s various issues, Spielberg’s direction is without question a knockout, delivering a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience that proves why the 71-year old director has been a household name for decades. He’s simply an inimitable force whose crown has yet to be seized. Even in this day and age, no one does it like Uncle Steve.

The film translates the broad strokes of Cline’s novel ably. Wade Watts (a confident Tye Sheridan) is a gamer in Columbus, Ohio, 2045. In this destitute excuse for a future urban utopia, he and his closest friends spend their days inside a digital playground called the OASIS. Since real-life these days just isn’t cutting it, many spend the majority of their waking hours plugged in. For the past five years, almost all have hunted the means to control the future of the platform – and the half-trillion dollar inheritance to accompany  it – by unraveling clues left by the OASIS’ mysterious creator James Halliday (a brilliantly dazed Mark Rylance) but with no forward progress yet made, only a few, including Wade and his pals, journey on to find their names on the leaderboard.

With so much of screentime spent inside the OASIS, Ready Player One invests heavily bringing the fantasyland to life, quickly introducing us to the character’s in-world alter egos. Using motion-capture technology to give some lifelike heft to the avatars that populate the artificial escape while allowing them to execute physics-defying stunts that’ll have your jaw dangling, Reader Player One is a synthesis of live action and digital animation that sometimes feels like a cross between Avatar, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Goonies. Everything inside the OASIS feels larger than life and that’s just the point. This is a world where anything is possible. Even for the hardened cynic trying to fend off the memberberries spell, Spielberg pulls you into the film’s gnashing jaws. A detour into one of my most beloved 80s horror movies is a masterfully recreated side quest that had me practically squealing with delight. With Ready Player One, Spielberg allows us to detach from the constraints of reality, to literally turn off the brain and zap up this tale of the little guys triumphing over big bad corporations, if just for a few hours in a darkened theater.

The OASIS is so all-encompassing that even Wade’s closest friends are disguised behind Gamertags. Despite being his closest friends,  Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki) are avatars whose real names he does not even know; his crush, the exceedingly competent Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), could be a 300-pound man named Larry and Wade would be none the wiser. This allows for characters to be taken at face value, not judged by their appearance, age, race or sexual orientation and Ready Player One does a commendable job of celebrating the diversity of its cast while commenting on the need to put aside the labels that so often work to segregate. Especially within the notoriously hostile gamer world. To its credit, this is a movie where the ladies kick as much ass as their male counterpart and there’s never an assumption otherwise.

In this alternative reality, actions trump physical appearance, though the script from Zak Penn (The Avengers) and Cline doesn’t confront pervasive hostility towards the “other” that infects the modern gamer hive. Ready Player One is happy to coast along on good vibes and blustery, third-act speeches about unity and justice for all without actually diving into the real world implications of what that looks like. Rather than take on the Gamergate controversy head-on, Ready Player One sidesteps it completely, missing an opportunity to challenge the rancid mentalities that stew in mediums of anonymity.

Musical cues from Van Halen, Duran Duran and Hall and Oates help Ready Player One’s lightweight moralism go down smoothly, allowing you to zone out to the dulcet visual Pop Rocks exploding onscreen. Underappreciated character actor Ben Mendelsohn is once again reduced to a mustache-twirling villain, this time done up with oversized veneers. He’s the human equivalent of a “Kick Me” sign and the perfect baddie for kids with a black-and-white understanding of good and evil. Like those coin-op arcade games of yesteryear, Ready Player One is a simple story with simple values and simple solutions but Spielberg has the impressive ability to dress it into a fantasy so otherworldly and so captivating that you hardly notice how shallow and artificial it all is. And that is one hell of a trick.

CONCLUSION: Part geeky circle-jerk, part eye-boggling hootenanny, and part arresting Spielbergian adventure cinema, ‘Ready Player One’ ascends its humdrum chapter book roots to champion a director with an unmatched eye for blockbuster entertainment. Far from perfect but almost obnoxiously entertaining, ‘Ready Player One’ proves a careful reminder never to doubt Steven Spielberg.

B-

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