Hoopla

'Ready Player One' can't win without stakes

Story just doesn't stand up to scope of Spielberg's vision, despite stylistic achievement

“Ready Player One” is Steven Spielberg’s re-imagining of the dystopian novel of the same name. (Courtesy photo: WARNER BROS. PICTURES)
“Ready Player One” is Steven Spielberg’s re-imagining of the dystopian novel of the same name. (Courtesy photo: WARNER BROS. PICTURES)

The fanboy heroes of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel “Ready Player One” obsessively study the pop culture of the 1970s and ’80s, so it seems destined Steven Spielberg would direct the film adaptation. He did, after all have a large hand in shaping that culture.

With “Ready Player One,” Spielberg has directed every ounce of his filmmaking mastery, clout and resources to the careful envisioning of this nearly unfilmable story, which is largely set in virtual reality. It’s a tremendous technological and stylistic achievement.

But if you look past the shiny, beautiful images, the detailed tapestry of references and the ’80s pop hits, the story itself just doesn’t stand up to the epic scope of Spielberg’s vision.

Set in the dystopian landscape of Columbus, Ohio, in 2045, most of the population escapes reality within the virtual world of a massive multiplayer online role playing game, Oasis. Before his death, the eccentric founder of Oasis, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), promised ownership of the company to whomever could win a nearly impossible quest within Oasis.

The promise of money and power has inspired every gamer in Columbus to enter the hunt, searching for keys to unlock each level and lead them to the winning Easter egg. An evil corporation, IOI, has even gotten in on the action with an army of mercenaries, hoping to win control of Oasis and of course, sell advertising.

Our hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), lives in a teetering trailer park called “The Stacks.” He escapes into Oasis to live as his alter ego, Parzival; play with his friends; and of course, hunt for the egg. He scours the recorded memories Halliday left behind for clues, memorizing his favorite movies, video games and TV shows for anything to indicate how to beat the game. But it’s not until he starts reading between the lines that things start to come into focus.

The execution of “Ready Player One” is indisputable, a big, beautiful fantasy. What’s missing are the stakes. Our heroes have no back story and little arc.

As avatars battle, exploding into coins as they digitally die, there’s a creeping sense of existential dread for the soul of “Ready Player One,” which isn’t nearly as radical as it thinks it is. When the dust is settled, it’s just a shifting of power. The system stays the same.

Spielberg and his team may have pored over the texture, richness and detail of this world, this game, but not the characters, or their story within it.

Watch it:

WHAT: “Ready Player One”

CAST: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance, Ben Mendelsohn, Simon Pegg

RUN TIME: 140 minutes

RATED: PG-13

STARS: HH 1/2

WHERE: Marcus Wehrenberg, Westdale 12 in Cedar Rapids, Coral Ridge Cinema in Coralville, Sycamore Cinema in Iowa City

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