2 1/2 (out of 4)
Though in the moment the combination of Steven Spielberg’s propulsive, intuitive directorial skills and a 175 million dollar budget equates to relatively unmatched entertainment value, Ready Player One cannot exercise many cinematic thrills without reverting to a narrative built more on referencing and borrowing from pop culture than genuine emotion or actual science fiction.
What little human elements are present – most of our time is spent in an overwhelming 3D-animated universe, the in-film virtual reality world OASIS – are pedestrian at best. Milquetoast Tye Sheridan stars as Wade Watts, who, as his avatar Parzival, simply wants to beat the Oasis's late creator's challenges leading to control of the game and romance his online fantasy, Art3mis, or Samantha Cook in person (the gifted up-and-comer Olivia Cooke). Going into a Spielberg film I didn’t really expect much other than bright-eyed sentiment and crowd pleasing, but our lead characters aren’t barely more interesting than Ben Mendelsohn’s generic corporate villain Nolan Sorrento, a ruthless CEO seeking to exploit the OASIS for profit.
As much as I question how much involvement Spielberg and DoP Janusz Kaminski had in the digital animation process, the result is as seamless as Spielberg’s first attempt at this technology in The Adventures of Tintin. Though inferior to that film and at least half of Spielberg's filmography, it's good to know the classic director can create his worst sci-fi film by a mile and still end up with something more inspired than Avatar.
Speaking of similar movies, the film somehow emulates both Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, and even with its dystopian future setting Ready Player One is in the same class of maturity as those aforementioned flicks. Despite an intriguing premise that could easily bring up bigger philosophical, social or even cinematic questions, the film's story settles for the most rudimentary of thematic content. Even the rules of the OASIS' virtual universe are never properly explained, and what is spelled out for us is a crude and unfulfilled vision of the future.
At about 30 minutes too long, Spielberg shows no restraint and is especially too keen to bait his audience with nostalgia. The worst sequence of the film is an extended homage (if you can call it that) to The Shining would make Stanley Kubrick's head throb. Just a decade or so ago Spielberg was making the likes of A.I. and Minority Report, films which would have made Kubrick proud. I can't imagine what Spielberg thinks he's doing for one of his favorite films by one of his major influences – regardless of his comfort with nine-figure-budgeted blockbusters, fun can't save the largely hollow reality at work in Ready Player One.
To keep it brief...