DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. After tackling the story of the Pentagon Papers in "The Post," Steven Spielberg has a new movie that's a sci-fi action adventure film adapted from a novel by Ernest Cline. It's called "Ready Player One." It features Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance and Lena Waithe, and film critic Justin Chang calls it Spielberg's return to his escapist roots.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: It's the year 2045, and Columbus, Ohio, has become an overpopulated junk heap of a city. The colors are gray and muted. People dwell in cramped trailers stacked on top of each other in rickety towers. But dystopia isn't all doom and gloom. When Dorothy got tired of Kansas, she flew over the rainbow. And in "Ready Player One," Steven Spielberg's fantastical but fatally overblown juggernaut of a movie, anyone can strap on virtual reality goggles and achieve the ultimate escape. Our guide to this brave new world is Wade Watts, a young orphan played by Tye Sheridan, who lives with his aunt in Columbus.
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TYE SHERIDAN: (As Wade) My name's Wade Watts. My dad picked that name because it sounded like a superhero's alter ego, like Peter Parker or Bruce Banner. But he died when I was a kid - my mom, too. And I ended up here, sitting here in my tiny corner of nowhere. There's nowhere left to go - nowhere except the OASIS.
CHANG: Imagine if someone had taken the eye-popping worlds within worlds of "Inception," "The Matrix" and last year's "Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets," then smashed them together into a giant CGI megamall, and you'll have some idea of how this astoundingly elaborate virtual reality universe operates. The OASIS was the brainchild of the late tech visionary James Halliday, who, as played by Mark Rylance in flashbacks, comes off as a nicer, nerdier Steve Jobs.
Along with his old friend Ogden Morrow played by Simon Pegg, Halliday dreamed up a fully immersive world where visitors could create their own digital avatars, lose themselves in interactive games and shop online to their heart's content. Before his death, Halliday left behind a Willy Wonka-style competition to find his heir, the person who would safeguard his legacy. Hidden throughout the OASIS are three keys unlocking a series of clues that will lead one lucky player to the carefully hidden grand prize, the ultimate Easter egg, the rights to the OASIS itself.
The twisty plot requires Wade to solve puzzles and join forces with a smart, tough-as-nails love interest named Art3mis, played by Olivia Cooke, plus a few other trusty allies played by Lena Waite, Win Morisaki and Philip Zhao. Their archnemesis played with a testy scowl by Ben Mendelsohn is Nolan Sorrento, a former Halliday intern who now runs a soulless, murderous conglomerate bent on finding the keys at any cost. Halliday also designed the OASIS with another purpose - to pay homage to every movie, TV show, video game and comic book he ever consumed.
Like the popular 2011 Ernest Cline science fiction novel on which it's based, "Ready Player One" is an extended valentine to those pop culture relics, most of which came out in the '80s and are thus beloved by people who grew up watching, well, Steven Spielberg movies. Spielberg avoids any allusions to his own films apart from a stray dinosaur who may or may not hail from "Jurassic Park." But as one of the undisputed high priests of American popular entertainment, he is in many ways enshrining his own legacy. Frankly, I wish he'd been more careful with it.
At nearly 2 1/2 hours, "Ready Player One" is an awful lot of movie. Watching it is like taking the world's most expensive, hallucinatory nostalgia trip. The pop culture references fly so thick and fast they make Quentin Tarantino look restrained. A tire-screeching car race includes a highly destructive cameo by King Kong. There are appearances by Batman, the Goonies and The Iron Giant, the star of a wonderful underseen 1999 animated feature that maybe some fraction of this movie's audience will feel compelled to check out. I won't give away the title of the film that inspires Spielberg's most exhaustively detailed homage. Suffice it to say that the resulting sequence is both spectacular and spectacularly empty, the apotheosis of this movie's dazzling but self-defeating aesthetic.
There's no denying that "Ready Player One" is a triumph of computer-generated imagery. The colors are wild. The avatars are engaging, and every new dimension we enter has a hundred different details to tickle the eye. But it's also a failure of dramatic engagement and, especially in its second half, a busy protracted slog. Spielberg can barely sit still long enough to grapple with the political implications of his futuristic premise, and his sensibility is too sanitized to explore the darker, more provocative aspects of 24/7 online addiction. None of the script's lame wisecracks made me roll my eyes as hard as the ending, with its halfhearted message that we all need to disconnect from our gadgets and connect with each other. Now, there's an idea.
The best thing in the movie, as in a few other Spielberg movies of late, is Mark Rylance, whose solemn, spaced-out line readings are pure pleasure to listen to. Halliday, a populist uber-geek with a touchingly pure soul, may be the benevolent overlord of "Ready Player One," but it takes its cues from Nolan Sorrento, who started out fetching Halliday's coffee and who now happily exploits fan culture for the sake of his own profits. He more or less sums up this movie's crass, cynical spirit.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic at The LA Times.
On Monday's show - the astonishing story of the Siamese twins Chang and Eng who were brought to America in 1829 and exploited and displayed as freaks. Eventually they took charge of their own career, became rich, married two sisters and fathered 21 children. We talk with Yunte Huang about his new book "Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins And Their Rendezvous With American History." Hope you can join us.
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BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.