'Ready Player One' Is a Crazy Cool Cinematic Thrill Ride

“These days, reality is a bummer,” says our young but world-weary hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) as Ready Player One opens in a grim and dystopian Columbus, Ohio, 27 years in the future. The nation has suffered a massive drought and survived the “bandwidth riots.” Citizens subsisting in slum-like conditions with no joy in their lives—except when they are playing OASIS, the ultimate VR computer game.

While it’s easy to think Ready Player One as just a cross between Nerve and The Matrix, it actually does forge its own identity… through the identities of others. If you think that’s confusing, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Fortunately, the cinematic adaptation of Ernest Cline’s bestselling book is directed by one of the most succinct storytellers of all time, Steven Spielberg. Only he has the ability to take non-gamers like me from “huh?” to “huzzah!”

The story is set in 2045, with the world teetering on the brink of chaos and collapse. But people have found salvation in OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by an eccentric entrepreneur, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). He’s a cross between Willy Wonka and Steve Jobs. When Halliday leaves the mortal coil, he in turn leaves his immense fortune to the first person to find a digital Easter Egg he has hidden somewhere in the OASIS. Needless to say, this sparks a contest that grips the entire world. When Wade decides to join the tournament, he is hurled into a breakneck, reality-bending treasure hunt through a fantastical universe of mystery, discovery, and danger. (And yes, there’s a ton of videogame violence here, though the film is rated PG-13—parents of younger children, beware.)

In keeping with the book’s original themes, Ready Player One isn’t just a love letter to 1980s pop culture it’s a whole set of encyclopedias. From Atari to Van Halen and from Back to the Future to Tears for Fears, every 80s reference you can imagine has already been imagined for you. While those who lived through the Reagan Era and extreme history buffs will get most of it, a lot will whiz over the heads of the kiddos.

But does that really matter? No. Ready Player One is a fun flick, full of action and heart. The in-jokes do not slow the narrative one whit. Viewers of all ages will enjoy the tried and true quest formula. There are three magic keys hidden somewhere in the vast OASIS, and whoever can discover them and then track down the elusive Easter Egg will become a true hero of the ages. Wade dubs himself Parzival (a nod to Percival from the tales of King Arthur) and jumps feet-first into the wild CGI yonder. At first, it’s a wild ride but Halliday did have a lot of money and with his empire hanging in the balance, greedy villains see this quest as much more than a game. They will stop at nothing to get it.

This is a Spielberg film, so let’s just say they had some studio bucks to make it. From the rusty trailer park where Wade exists to the candy-colored utopia where he really lives, everything looks amazing. The attention to detail is beyond spot-on. (Fans of the book and/or the 80s will be dazzled by the minutia.) Fortunately, Sheridan keeps things grounded with his sympathetic and believable portrayal of a young man who just wants a better life for himself and his loved ones.

Ready Player One demands to be witnessed on the big screen and is a great film for teens and their parents to see together.

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