Family Movie Review: Ready Player One (PG-13)

Kernel Rating: whole popcorn kernalwhole popcorn kernalhalf popcorn kernal(2.5 out of 5)

MPAA Rating: PG-13       Length: 140 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 13+. This adaptation of the cult classic novel by Ernest Cline is about a virtual reality world that is threatened, and the teenagers and young adults who come together to defend its existence. There is a lot of virtual violence here; when people are killed or injured in the virtual world, their bodies or limbs explode into arcade coins, and so there is a lot of that throughout as people are killed in fighting games, in car crashes, when facing off against King Kong, and in a climactic battle scene with explosions, drowning, and other varieties of violence. It may be a lot for younger viewers. Also some cursing; some declarations of romantic love and some kissing; a subplot in which people who become overcome by debt are sent to a company’s worker camps; some deaths in the “real world,” including assassinations; and a recreation of a long scene from the classic horror film “The Shining,” including ax attacks, a chase through a maze, implied nudity, and a decaying reanimated corpse.

‘Ready Player One’ is jam-packed with ’80s references, from music to movies to video games, and some of the visual effects are thrilling, horrifying, and fun. But Steven Spielberg’s latest is only infrequently successful, more often relying on viewer recognition of things they already like than actual character development or narrative engagement.

By Roxana Hadadi

ReadyPlayerOne ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewIt may be impossible to separate “Ready Player One” from its references—from the ‘80s pop culture it brings up over and over again, from hit songs to video games to movies. Director Steven Spielberg, in his adaptation of the cult classic novel by Ernest Cline, packs it all in, even referencing some of his own classic works from that time period. But will viewers actually like “Ready Player One,” or will they only like the other media referenced in “Ready Player One”? My guess is the latter—without the Easter eggs, inside jokes, and endless homages, “Ready Player One” doesn’t offer much that is unique to itself.

The year is 2045, and we learn from our protagonist Wade (Tye Sheridan, of “X-Men: Apocalypse”), who lives in the “Stacks” (trailers stacked on top of each other in rickety wire frames) in Columbus, Ohio, that there is “nowhere left to go” in their world. “Reality’s a bummer,” Wade says. Instead, nearly everyone lives their lives in the virtual reality world the Oasis. They strap on headsets, put on special gloves and suits, and enter a world in which they can be anyone (a different gender, a different age, a different hairdo, different outfits, a different species) and do anything (go surfing, race cars, duel opponents) and go anywhere (even other worlds). It is the ultimate freedom, and it was created by the tech genius Halliday (Mark Rylance, of “The BFG”), who died some years before and who is worshipped as a god by those who use the Oasis—which is pretty much everyone.

Things cost money in the Oasis and it takes time to build up your identity and additional lives, but it’s the only place Wade feels accepted; in that world, he goes by the name Parzival. And like countless other users of the Oasis, he is desperately trying to solve Anorak’s Quest, a challenge left by Halliday. It’s a sort of treasure hunt inside the Oasis, where Halliday has hidden clues and keys to a series of challenges. Who knows the most about Halliday, about his likes and dislikes, about his passions and his preferences? No one has come forward yet, despite years and years of attempts.

Whoever solves the Easter eggs within the Quest will win ownership of the Oasis—a top priority of the video game company IOI, a manufacturer of much of the equipment used to access the Oasis. CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, of “Rogue One”) wants to own the world, and so IOI has created countless teams of people to look for the Easter eggs. Yet they too have been unsuccessful.

But could Wade be the special Gunter (a nickname for the Easter egg hunters) to break the challenge wide open? With his best friend Aech (Lena Waithe) by his side and a new ally in the form of his crush Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”), Wade thinks he could solve the whole thing—if IOI doesn’t get there first.

The plot of “Ready Player One” is exceptionally straightforward (here is a puzzle; here is people solving that puzzle) and so it relies on the endless use of other references as a sort of shorthand for character development. Wade likes everything Halliday liked; Art3mis likes everything Halliday liked; but why did Halliday like any of it? The film doesn’t dive deeply into its characters to actually uncover anything about them; it just uses recognizable elements like certain songs and films to mark who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. It’s an extremely simplistic way of demonstrating someone’s goodness (who cares about a person’s motivations if they share your same pop culture taste?) and it makes for lazy storytelling, even though Rylance is expectedly wonderful, as he’s been in other Spielberg films like “The BFG” and “Bridge of Spies.”

Still, there are visual marvels: Although the CGI is unrelenting, some of it is thrilling, like a car chase that winds throughout various challenges like a T. Rex and King Kong attacking drivers, and a final battle that brings together disparate elements like the DeLorean from “Back to the Future,” the Iron Giant, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Much like “The LEGO Batman Movie” from last year, there is some joy in seeing pop culture icons you never expected to intersect actually interacting together. But when the excitement of that is gone, “Ready Player One,” with underdeveloped characters and narrative shortcomings, offers very little else to take its place.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.