The year is 2045, and Columbus, Ohio has inexplicably become the largest city in the US. In its poorest neighborhood lives 18-year-old orphan Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan). Like nearly everyone else, Wade spends all day in a virtual reality platform called OASIS, which provides an escape from this bleak future world.
Five years earlier, OASIS's geeky creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance, Spielberg's unlikely late-career compadre) passed away, leaving behind an irresistible treasure hunt in his virtual world: whoever finds three hidden keys will win half a trillion dollars and full ownership of OASIS. Wade has joined the hunt, as have a ragtag assortment of gamers and a sinister corporation called IOI. The prize is just too valuable to pass up.
I read Ernest Cline's Ready Player One shortly after it was published in 2011. I found it a fun if meaningless page-turner. However, I was impressed with Cline's ability to serve up wall-to-wall '80s nostalgia (the hunt for the keys requires a deep dive into the nerdy obsessions of Halliday's childhood) without dumbing it down. You'd have to be a pretty serious pop culture junkie to get everything – Cline referenced not only Pac-Man and WarGames but Rush's 2112 and the TRS-80 game Dungeons of Daggorath. The novel was a neat balance of hi-tech thrills and a trip down Memory Lane.
It seemed almost too good to be true to have pop culture king Steven Spielberg direct the big-screen adaptation. And while his film features state-of-the-art visuals – see Ready Player One in IMAX and/or 3D, if possible – it maintains the "scruffy but virtuous outsiders vs. The-Powers-That-Be" vibe mined so thoroughly in the '80s films that he directed or produced.
Ready Player One is dazzling to look at – much of the film takes place in a fully CG-rendered environment – breathtakingly paced, and packed to the rafters with Easter eggs. Young teens should love it, provided they recognize the references.
As for me, I liked the film only to a degree.
The problem, as usual, is with the script: the adaptation, by Cline and Zak Penn, is a mess. I'm not saying it had to be absolutely faithful to Cline's novel, but the litany of changes veers out of control, from arbitrary indulgences – Wade lived in Oklahoma City in the book; why Columbus now? – to plot holes the size of craters.
My (least) favorite contrivances: Although OASIS is allegedly played by millions around the world, every single character in the film just happens to be in Columbus. Meanwhile, all of James Halliday's referenced memories now stem from the 2020s, when he was in his fifties, which doesn't explain why OASIS's pop culture allusions peter out in the 20th century. Most egregiously, a major plot point hinges on IOI's evil CEO's (Ben Mendelsohn) all-powerful, super-secret password being written on a Post-it Note, in full view of anyone entering his office. I mean, really? In 2045? That is absurdly lazy storytelling.
The one time the film really feels inspired is during an extended scene set in a note-perfect reproduction of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Had the film, like the novel, slowed down to squeeze in a few more of these site-specific puzzles, it would have felt more like a story instead of a flurry of generic chases and battles.
Ready Player One will be a frustrating experience if you care anything about logic. Switch off your brain and you've got a good enough popcorn flick.