Spielberg recycles pop culture bits in dystopian ‘Ready Player One’


Raise your hand if you have had enough of films based on YA novels set in a dystopian near future. “Ready Player One,” the second Steven Spielberg film in three months, is based on the 2010 fanboy novel by Ernest C. Cline.

Set in 2045 in Columbus, Ohio, it tells a pop-culture-steeped story that’s a mash-up of “Back to the Future” and “Avatar.” Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) like most young people in a stressed-out world, prefers to escape the dreary, trailer-park reality by donning headsets and playing in “the Oasis,” where he can be anything, any gender, any creature he likes and engage in violent game- and role-playing like a character in a video game until he “zeroes out,” that is dies in the game and loses all the money and treasure he has accrued while playing.

The head of the company running the Oasis is the evil Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who has a Darth Vader-like Oasis rig in his office and a hired assassin in the Oasis named I-R0k (T.J. Miller). Sorrento sends young rebels to Loyalty Centers, where they are forced to serve as slave labor on Planet Doom. When in the wake of his death, the Steve Jobs-like James Halliday (Mark Rylance) appears as his Gandalf-like avatar Anorak, a wizard who is named after a coat apparently, to announce a “Speed Racer”-like game featuring three keys, groan-worthy written clues and an Easter Egg hunt, what do you think Wade’s avatar Parzival drives?

Yes, that would be a DeLorean.

Parzival’s best friend in the Oasis is a hulking giant named Aech (Lena Waithe), an avatar who looks like Vin Diesel and drives a giant truck with buzz saws on its front bumper. Parzival/Wade falls for the motorcycle-driving leather-clad Art3mis/Samantha (a rather dull Olivia Cooke). In the course of the drearily familiar computer-generated action, we will encounter a T-Rex, a Mechagodzilla, an Iron Giant, a King Kong and action reminiscent of everything from “Tron” to “Lord of the Rings.”

“Ready Player One” will revisit several Spielberg themes including his obsession with Stanley Kubrick. A sequence in “Ready Player One” is set in the Overlook Hotel of Kubrick’s “The Shining,” where Aech will encounter those little twin girls and “a crazy naked zombie lady.” There is some truly tiresome bit about a “Zemeckis Cube.” Simon Pegg appears for two minutes in terrible makeup as Halliday’s onetime partner Ogden “Og” Morrow. Blink and you’ll miss Letitia Wright (“Black Panther”) as a virtual extra here. Was that Merlin’s spell from “Excalibur” I heard?

As a wise-cracking anime fighter named Sho, young Philip Zhao is one of the film’s very few bright spots. The rest is mostly derivative, computer-generated sludge. Music by Alan Silvestri is intrusive. Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski is hard to appreciate since “Ready Player One” is almost an animated film. I suppose on some level Wade is like a young Spielberg, who discovered his own “Oasis” in the world of film. But by the time the bad guy got kicked in his avatar yarbles, I was ready to zero out of “Ready Player One.”

(“Ready Player One” contains violence, bloody images, near nudity and profanity.)


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