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Ready Player One review: A fun but empty crowd-pleaser

Steven Spielberg goes all-out on fan-service and fast-paced action for Ready Player One's self-conscious, cacophonous fun.

Ready Player One trumpets its self-referential ego as some of the most important creators of the 80s culture are now behind the production of this nostalgic fantasy romp. That's right, no man other than Steven Spielberg directs Ready, with Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) composing and Michael Kahn (a frequent collaborator of Spielberg) editing. This is an adaptation of Ernest Cline's 2011 novel, which drew controversies for its fanboy exuberance as much as the contempt from people who hated Cline's so-so writing and reliance on references.

To re-create and facilitate the pop culture landmarks, the world inside Ready has a public realm of virtual reality called the OASIS—Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation, though Spielberg and his characters sometimes forget the "immersive" part. The prologue introduces this multi-functional platform by leading viewers on a nauseous ride through its technological marvels. Education, recreation, and business all take place inside the OASIS. The mass, rejecting their dismal reality, becomes addicted to this sweet blue pill.

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The OASIS exists in a dystopian world where climate change leads to withered crops, and low living standards. Most of the population retreat to sprawling slumps where so-called "Stacks"—stories of trailers piled up—huddle together. Our reluctant hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, X-Men: Apocalypse) lives in one of those in Columbus, Ohio. He's an orphaned teenager with a YA dystopian routine like dealing with his obnoxious uncle (Ralph Ineson) and getting comfy in his hideout. Like other lonely boys, he has only a small OASIS social circle, including Falstaffian BFF Aech (Lena Waithe) and dreamy, fearless crush Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). Sheridan is again typecast as the likable white male (the younger, less douchey Mark Wahlberg?), and his expression is unremarkable in this thinly written archetype. His posture and voice, however, are fantastic for Wade's mo-capped OASIS avatar, Parzival.

One day, OASIS creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) dies. His Star Trek-themed last will and testament announces the Anorak's Quest, whereby any user who finds Halliday's Easter Egg inside the OASIS will be its new owner, along with half a trillion dollars of inheritance. Because Halliday was an avid fan of the glorious 80s, his quest ignites a global boom of researching and enjoying pop culture properties, which permeate this world—not just in minds, but as graffiti everywhere. People engaging in the quest are dubbed Gunters—for Egg hunters. They unearth tons of information about Halliday's past life and 70s & 80s entertainment, from music and video games to fashion and films and TV shows. With these riffs from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the puzzling genius of Halliday's Egg hunt must find its hero in a spirited underdog with indisputable expertise on Halliday and pop culture. That's where Wade comes in and finds the quest's first objective.

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Opposing the grouped and individual Gunters are the Sixers, hired by Innovative Online Industries, or IOI. The ravenous conglomerate is tempted by the prospect of controling the OASIS, the Internet in our near future. We all know the "Big Data, Big Brother" threat in real life, and IOI as a collective villain is fitting for a world during Facebook's data scandal and the loss of Net Neutrality. Don't worry, the movie puts a vile face on IOI, as the sinister Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) manages a division full of nerds and aforementioned Sixers. He is the butt of technological jokes—a jab at the detachment between corporate bigwigs and their products.

With the Jade and Crystal Keys remained hidden, Wade and his trusted allies compete against the IOI, whose only purpose is to exploit the OASIS for more money. The premise leans on 80s films, notably The Goonies; its heroes are bathed in an idealist light of Spielberg's biopics about little people standing up for democracy.

Because of his serious, mature works of political issues like Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, some regard Spielberg as a director who forgot to have fun and earned sentimentality. They seem to overlook the thrilling one-take chases in The Adventures of Tintin and the E.T.-ish story of War Horse just because The BFG underperformed. Spielberg proves he's the only one capable—not just politically (Ready needs a massive number of properties) but also artistically—of putting together this movie. The pop legend doesn't even have to return to form because he never lost his form while re-inventing himself. If the cineplex audiences want bold escapism, captivating set pieces, and a wholesome ending, the movie doesn't disappoint.

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Because the source material takes on Wade's viewpoint, Spielberg lets exposition go wild in the first act, relying on Sheridan's voice-over to introduce Wade and a plethora of OASIS tidbits. There are moments of "show not tell" to convey the usefulness of virtual reality, but the narration is tiring and should be dialed down in visually prominent sequences. It's as if Ready wanted us to be bewildered, not amazed. Thankfully, Spielberg knows how to entice us after the mandatory worldbuilding. He initiates the first Egg-hunting challenge in the form and momentum of a race in RoboCop's Delta City. Its dangerous route features Spielberg's notorious creation, Jurassic Park's T-Rex, and King Kong as the final boss. His trademark long take is evermore fascinating with precision and devotion to the visual clarity of moving objects.

Another familiar face of Spielberg's crew, Janusz Kaminski stretches his cinematography muscle with haze and bright backlight in the setting, where dance floors and exotic environments are ubiquitous. The OASIS's dazzling light is necessarily artificial. Because kineticism is crucial to action spectacle, Kaminski's virtual camera moves smoothly and relentlessly to show off the background. It's almost on par with his photography in the stylized Minority Report. Jam-packed with avatars and activities, frames are never dense or busy—but clear and motivated.

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Silvestri's rambunctious and uplifting score accompanies the characters in rowdy escapades, and Spielberg sometimes inserts audio cues, like one from Back to the Future, putting a lingering smile on the faces of the little children in us. The set design, courtesy of Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock (Grand Budapest Hotel), refurbishes the time-honored locales where avatars relax with friends, fight the Sixers, or run from Stanley Kubrick's delicately horrifying creations. Donning costumes by rock legends or from classic teen movies, OASIS avatars have exaggerated eyes and metallic skin, indicating the casual superficiality. That said, the overall result is visually accessible.

Backing Spielberg's effortless fun is the screenplay by Cline himself and Zak Penn (X-Men: The Last Stand, The Avengers), which drastically changes and trims the book's plot. This could give its readers, like me, cognitive dissonance because even the book's backbone is broken and re-shaped. The second half rushes frantically to the final act on Voltron's Planet Doom, for which every viewer waits since the beginning. The trailers reveal many fan-favorite characters from classic films and video games, and the actual battle throws in even more properties than what we imagine. I mentioned a detail in my Game Night review—when references less popularized for the global market are spelled out, and I'm mentioning it again. Chucky and Kaneda's red bike are notable examples of how Ready can't give true geeks a good time with Easter Eggs. Though it highlights IPs in key scenes with care and inventiveness, most references are hollow and even contradicting their sources. Or is it Spielberg's faint criticism on the emptiness of imitation?

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The movie keeps the skeleton ensemble of characters from its source although personalities are altered or omitted. Art3mis overshadows Parzival, thanks to Cooke's affective eyes and sunnily confident smiles. She is the centerpiece of my favorite scene, a disco dance where "Blue Monday" plays in the background, Sixers launch an attack on a well-prepared Wade, and Art3mis slams the reality's problems to his face. Her emotional fury shatters his fantasy and reveals IOI's actual antagonism. Intriguingly, this Art3mis is better than in her novel counterpart in one way and worse in another.

In Wade's lackluster presence, other side characters are even more outstanding. Rylance's sensibility gives uber-nerd Halliday his needed unawareness and a hint of autistic disorder, and the character's drollery transpires even better in Halliday's avatar, the wizard Anorak. As Sorrento, Mendelsohn is becoming Hollywood's go-to man when movies need aristocratic, taciturn villain whose syndicate-like ethos loses to the good guys in funny or inspiring showdowns. There's also the comic relief, enlivened by TJ Miller's voice acting. His character, bounty hunter i-R0k, is one of the most entertainingly spiteful in recent memory. Simon Pegg appears in brief recordings and a later scene as Ogden Morrow, Halliday's best friend and old business partner. He's an underused character, but that can't be said for F'Nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen), an addition of superfluous violence.

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If you look for commentaries on online avocation and personal responsibility, Ready gives too few of them. The trend of youth seclusion is there, but the script examines neither our relationship with the Internet and escapist spaces nor any thematic subtext in real-life intervals between set pieces. Instead, Spielberg goes all-out on fan-service and fast-paced action for self-conscious, cacophonous fun. This fantasyscape isn't Matrix or Avalon. It's just a little more than Tron of the 2010s.