READY VIEWER ONE: Spielberg both retro and relevant

August 1, 2018

  “Ready Player One” is a remarkably savvy motion picture.

  It’s amazing how Steven Spielberg, who rocketed to fame before the Internet, digital effects or virtual reality, manages to keep himself both retro and relevant.

  Based on Ernest Cline’s popular young-adult novel, “RPO” will appeal to both adults and teens.

  The movie is set in 2045 -- no farther from us than we are from 1991; so the contours of its milieu are reasonably familiar.

  Until we step into the Oasis.

  That’s a virtual-reality world that helps the impoverished populace escape its daily struggle. The massive online realm was created by James Halliday, a sci-fi geek who saturated it with an arsenal of pop-culture references.

  When the film begins, Halliday has recently died, leaving behind an intricate series of virtual tests and trials; whoever finally solves them to reach the hidden Easter egg will inherit his fortune, plus control of the Oasis. Chief among the competitors is a group of teens working against a heavily moneyed corporation that is pouring every resource into this greedy quest.

  With that nifty storyline, “RPO” is able to overindulge in computer-graphics and zippy gaming, while also basking in retro pop culture -- everything from Mortal Kombat and “Citizen Kane” to the Bee Gees, “Back to the Future,” the Iron Giant, Monty Python, Van Halen, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Shakespeare, “Alien,” Twisted Sister, King Arthur, Beetlejuice and Stanley Kubrick’s version of “The Shining.”

  Indeed, the “Shining” sequence is a tour de force, with an extended chase that includes the creepy twins, the lady in the tub, the elevator bloodbath and the ax-wielding maniac in the frozen topiary -- all in the form of an online game.

  Interested yet?

  What’s especially cool about that scene is the way Spielberg’s veteran cameraman, Janusz Kaminski, seems to have filmed it on grainy 1970s film stock. I have no idea how he managed this; but the overpowering blend of nostalgia and dread is virtually unique in my movie-going experience.

  On the downside, “RPO” pushes the PG-13 rating in terms of graphic content; and its climax drags on too long. But Spielberg can still direct a blazing action scene: The opening car-chase, including subways, the Batmobile, King Kong and the Brooklyn Bridge, is a real dazzler.

  Yet in in spite of its exciting CGI, this is in many ways a very old-fashioned movie: selfless good guys, dim-witted villains and an upbeat resolution -- including a couple of twists that feel organic, rather than inserted merely to surprise.

  The solid cast includes Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Simon Pegg and the wonderful Mark Rylance as Halliday, who admits near the end that reality may have its drawbacks -- but it’s still the only place you can get a decent meal.

  So even with its emphasis on virtual worlds, the terrific “RPO” winds up affirming that real life remains more precious than technology.

  Can’t get much more retro than that.

 

“Ready Player One,”

directed by Steven Spielberg

Run time: 140 min.

* * * (out of four)

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language

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