Although Ready Player One can sometimes feel strained and self indulgent, there's enough visual artistry to induce a hypnotic (or tranquilizing) effect. The year is 2045 and the world's in a quasi-dystopia. Extreme poverty and housing shortages are offset by the Oasis, a virtual reality world where people pass the time in fantasy. The Oasis is the ultimate bliss out.
The first part of Ready Player One doesn't even feel like a Spielberg film, shot more in the style of George Lucas and the Wachowskis. Few Spielberg films have been so open about his influences. Although it gets off to a slow start, a meaning and logic builds as the film unfolds.
Tye Sheridan stars as Wade, a typical kid obsessed with the computer programmer legend Halliday (Mark Rylance) who created the Oasis, possibly based on Bill Gates, much more so in the novel. Before passing away, Halliday promised a bright future to anyone who could find the three keys hidden in his virtual world. He teams up with Samantha (Olivia Cooke) who bears a resemblance to 80s icon Lea Thompson who starred in Back to the Future. In time, others join the team in a Matrix/Wizard of Oz quest.
Some of the set pieces work, while others drown you in CGI labyrinths. A car race plays like an homage to the work of George Lucas, more THX-1138 than Phantom Menace. A parody of The Shining is by far the most stunning set piece. As Ready Player One moves closer to the climax it starts to feel more like a Spielberg film, echoes of E.T. and the Indiana Jones, even The Sugarland Express.
Mythmaking is the central theme in Ready Player One. What do we remember? Why do we remember it? The digital world of 2045 is all about the 1980s. It was a decade ruled by Spielberg, the wunderkind director of the 1970s, rose to a position of trendsetter in the Eighties. We're now in a cultural moment that longs for the Reagan era. Was it the sense of having avoided a nuclear war? Fond memories of Reagan, a likable president? Or was it the sweet spot decade, before technology began to rule every aspect of life? Does it just look cooler now?
It's fair to say we're now in the late era of Spielberg's career (although Clint Eastwood hit a stride in his 70s) so that makes Ready Player One a movie that will be closely analyzed. There's a sense of finality to it, as if he will never revisit the special effects extravaganza terrain again. All of his usual themes are present, a rehash of a rehash, adding a hint of sadness to the whole enterprise. Just as aging Star Wars fans felt betrayed by The Last Jedi, Spielberg's telling us we'll never know the sense of wonder of his earlier work. But we can think of new possibilities in cinema.
Always in tune with changing audience tastes, Spielberg has made his most special effects heavy, unabashedly CGI intense movie. Yet there is still meaning and irony because the story's old fashioned. It's a hopeful film in the end; environments, technologies, economies all shift, but the human need for stories and narrative will never go away.