It's 2045 in Columbus, Ohio. Neighborhoods have turned into trailer parks set atop other trailer parks for seemingly dozens of stories, all Towers of Pisa in what is now known as "the Stacks." Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) wishes to escape this drudgery, but a new kind of capitalism has, of course, replaced the old order: Citizens gain points, which are their currency and which the government has the right to repossess with the promise of imprisonment (here, the permanent fixture of a virtual reality headset upon one's head before entering the "virtual world" of forced labor). It is, clearly, a bleak existence.
The bleak part is not what director Steven Spielberg's film, based on the novel by Ernest Cline, is about. The filmmaker, who has become responsible for some of the most iconic blockbuster entertainments of the last 45 years, is and has always been about the search for the ideal within the cynical. Ready Player One uses the bleakly capitalistic backdrop of its world to frame an adventure story in the tradition of the average video game (and one that, consequently, owes a great deal to a certain Roald Dahl adaptation): Each level brings a new threat, and the end of the game is like the solution to a puzzle.
That concept is a literal one here, as the action surrounds a virtual reality game called The OASIS, in which anyone can be any figure from popular culture. There are a lot of callbacks here, some of them overt (such as an entire sequence superimposed into the foreground of a horror movie, until the movie itself comes alive in ways that won't be revealed here, or the use of a popular slasher-movie heavy as a weapon at a crucial moment) and others subtler (such as spotting another slasher-movie heavy and a certain video-game hedgehog in the backgrounds of certain shots). None of them are as gratuitous as the inevitable backlash will suggest: This is a world of pure imagination.
James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the creator of The OASIS, has hidden his fortune, which approaches half a trillion dollars, and the stock of his company somewhere in the game. Wade, by way of his avatar "Parzival," embarks upon that mission alongside his friends "Aech" (Lena Waithe), "Daito" (Win Morasaki), and "Sho" (Philip Zhao) and the mysterious "Art3mis" (Olivia Cooke). All of them are eventually targeted by IOI, a corporate entity with several armies at their disposal, whose CEO Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is determined to inherit the company and literally turn it into capital.
So, no, within the definition of a plot, there isn't much here that has been reinvented, but even as Spielberg and screenwriters Cline and Zak Penn have short-shrifted development of the real world (which is almost exclusively seen through the prism of the Stacks) and genuine exploration of the virtual one (which is both an immersive backdrop and still definitely just a backdrop), they have provided a convincing and often thrilling adventure. Action sequences are kinetic, visually stunning, and aurally complex, worthy of all possible accolades, and Alan Silvestri's score, which borrows from other film scores on occasion, is an orchestral delight. Ready Player One is a fun ride in the tradition of, well, Spielberg, and it means that there's a heart hiding away at the center of this adventure, too.
Tye Sheridan (Wade/Parzival), Olivia Cooke (Samantha/Art3mis), Ben Mendelsohn (Sorrento), Lena Waithe (Helen/Aech), Mark Rylance (Halliday), T.J. Miller (I-R0k), Simon Pegg (Morrow), Philip Zhao (Toshuro/Daito), Win Morisaki (Zo/Sho).
Directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, based on the novel by Cline.
Rated PG-13 (sci-fi action violence, bloody images, suggestive material, partial nudity, language).
Released on March 29, 2018.