Review: Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’ is a Delirious Ode to Virtual Reality

Ready Player One (credit Warner Brothers)

Editor’s note: Read our story on “Ready Player One”‘s special New Jersey connection here.

Beethoven had his triumphant “Ode to Joy.” “Ready Player One” is Steven Spielberg’s delirious “Ode to Joy Stick.”

After a string of serious live-action films – “The Post,” “Bridge of Spies,” “Lincoln,” “War Horse” – Spielberg is back with a movie that offers guiltless adventure, a salute to virtual reality and a pure pop package full of junk-culture references and video-game in-jokes.

Is it for you? That may be a generational question.

I was in high school when Pong came out, in college around the time of Space Invaders. Neither struck me as a good way to spend my time, or my quarters. By the time the games got more complicated, I’d already gone on to other things. Like getting married, and getting into debt.

Obviously, you – or your kids – may feel differently.

But even though I can’t tell Minecraft from Warcraft, I still had a good time at “Ready Player One,” a film that’s packed full of breakneck excitement and widescreen magic.

It’s another slice of dystopian sci-fi, although this one comes with a bit of wit (it takes place, we’re told, “after the Corn Syrup Droughts, and the Bandwidth Riots”). Our hero, Wade, lives in a Columbus, Ohio slum, where the housing consists of double-wide trailers stacked on top of each other, and everyone spends their days playing in a virtual-reality world, the Oasis.

Ready Player One (2017) trailer (screen grab) CR: Warner Bros. Pictures

The game isn’t just a necessary distraction from the ugliness of the real world; it’s become a kind of addiction. But it also contains a prize: If you solve three puzzles hidden inside the game, you win control of the trillion-dollar company that owns it.

Naturally, Wade wants to win. Naturally, some very powerful people want to stop him.

And with that, the whole movie jumps into the computer game itself, a place it’ll spend most of the next two hours. The actors are replaced by avatars, the sets by CGI landscapes. And because the game’s original inventor was a bit of an `80s geek, the movie is quickly crammed with the decade’s detritus, everything from Joan Jett songs to “Chucky” movies.

It’s great fun, and often smart, in a kind of Trivial Pursuit way. In one sequence, Wade and his fellow gamers are trapped inside a challenge based on “The Shining.” In another, a Rubik’s Cube, a costume from “Buckaroo Banzai” and some disco dance steps all add up to tentative romance and a breathless escape.

But sometimes you can feel Spielberg straining, as if he’s trying – very hard — to convince himself he has serious things to say. And he never swayed me.

Yes, it’s nice once again – as in “A Wrinkle In Time” – to have a movie for young people that presents a quietly diverse cast. But all the main characters – heroes and villains – are white. A gender-non-conforming African-American is used mostly for comic relief. Two Asian characters are obsessed with – of course – samurais and ninjas.

Ready Player One (credit Warner Brothers)

And while there’s a point here about our cyber-addictions, the movie is too busy revelling in its own pop trivia to truly develop it. Besides, all Wade really wants to do is keep the game going (and, maybe, become a trillionaire.) He has no interest in cleaning up the planet, or helping his poor relatives. He has met “The Matrix,” and he loves it.

Of course it doesn’t help much that Tye Sheridan, who plays him, is so charmless, or that the script keeps him so constantly removed from his feelings. “You killed my mother’s sister,” he tells her murderer at one point. What, you can’t bring yourself to call your Aunt by name?

Far more charming is Olivia Cooke, from “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” who plays Wade’s in-cyberspace — and, eventually, in-real-life – friend Art3mis. Although Mark Rylance has begun to wear out that distracted, daffy eccentric thing he does, just a bit, he also adds gentle humor to Halliday, the computer-genius whose own obsessions created this world everyone else lives in.

And far more satisfying are the nuts and bolts of the movie itself. Spielberg was probably born knowing how to shoot an action sequence – you can see all the skills right from his first feature, “Duel,” made in 1971 – and there isn’t a wasted shot or confusing cut in all of “Ready Player One.”

When the characters enter the world of “The Shining,” he effortlesssly mimics Kubrick’s shots; when the film finally explodes in a free-for-all of monsters, aliens, Godzilla and a souped-up DeLorean – he creates his own, unique adventurescape.

Like almost all of Spielberg’s movies, things get a little too explicit and explanatory at the end (almost every Spielberg movie since “Jaws” could have faded out at least one scene earlier). And it’s a small shame that there are some completely unnecessary four-letter words here; “Ready Player One” is a perfect movie for parents and children to see together.

Even if you still can’t tell the Super Mario Brothers apart.