Ready Player One
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language.
2 hr. 20 min.

It’s important to note that the following observations come from a writer who has peacefully coexisted with, but skillfully avoided, video games. I worked in a Sega Center arcade as a college sophomore, and sustained some PTSD not just from the debilitating cacophony but from trying to urge 280-pound brutes not to lean on the pinball machines. That all kind of killed the virtual thrill for me. Yet, I saw Ready Player One through what I assure you were objective eyes.

For one, it’s a Steven Spielberg film, which automatically commands attention. For another, the best-selling novel of the same name has been a part of the fanboy zeitgeist for seven years. The book’s author, Ernest Clines, adapted the script with Zak Penn. Special-effects genius Industrial Light and Magic created the look of a stark future and the eye-popping virtual universe.

Stark is a mild description. The film’s real-world Columbus, Ohio, 2045, is a festering, squalid pile of used mobile homes called The Stacks. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, X-Men: Apocalypse) and others not so fortunate populate the towers of junk in this bleak, dystopian landscape. The residents all seek relief from their grim existence by assuming avatars and entering a virtual world called OASIS.

At the outset, it’s a complicated story, so I’ll break it down: Wade, as his avatar Parzival, enters OASIS with others such as the tough Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). They join in a massive treasure hunt to find three keys that will lead them to an Easter egg left by the world’s creator, the late James Halliday (Oscar winner Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies). The finder of the egg inherits OASIS and all its virtual universe. A dark business concern, Innovative Online Industries (IOI), wants OASIS for itself. Its cunning, craven CEO, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, Bloodline), assumes an avatar that looks like Don Draper on steroids (apologies to Jon Hamm), and plows into the hunt himself.

The action in both the real-life, double-wide/RV ghetto and OASIS is augmented by endless 1980s trivia and music, which isn’t a bad thing, entirely. As it was with the 1960s, obsession with the ’80s is a fad in and of itself. Get ready for references to Back to the Future, Beetlejuice, Buckaroo Bonzai and, most integral to the plot, The Shining. The music varies: Joan Jett; Earth, Wind and Fire; and Twisted Sister are as essential to the storytelling as the dialogue, as are the other dated pop-culture touchstones. You’ll have to see it twice to absorb all of them.

Behind the camera, Spielberg, an ’80s icon himself, does not disappoint. All the elements are here: good guys versus bad guys, rich versus poor, girl meets boy. (Wade’s Parzival and Art3mis, actually named Samantha, hit it off.) There’s a moral, too: that you should put down those game controls and get the hell outside once in a while, to experience what really exists.

For those not versed in the world of gaming, think of Ready Player One as a state-of-the-art, fun time at the movies, if not an all-out assault on the senses, visual and auditory. The sound waves batter you in your seat and rattle the walls.

Is it escapism? Yes. It’s absolutely awe-inspiring. And why not? With self-driving cars already getting into accidents and a patch of plastic trash the size of Mexico floating in the Pacific Ocean, even those of us who will never be mistaken for gamers need to flee what is real, from time to time.