[Screen It]

"READY PLAYER ONE"
(2018) (Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Sci-Fi/Action: Various people and their avatar counterparts attempt to find the Easter egg left somewhere in the expanses of the virtual world in which all of them spend most of their time.
PLOT:
It's the year 2045 and Wade Watts (TYE SHERIDAN) is an orphaned 18-year-old who lives with his aunt in Columbus, Ohio in her vertically aligned trailer park. Like most everyone else in the world who's given up on problem-solving and simply want to escape, Wade spends most his time as his virtual reality alter-ego, Parzival, in the Oasis. Created long ago by James Halliday (MARK RYLANCE) and his business partner, Ogden Morrow (SIMON PEGG), the Oasis is a place where anyone can be anyone or anything they want, and the place is teaming with pop culture icons and references going back through the decades.

Since Halliday's death five years ago, VR gamers known as "gunters" such as Parzival and his VR friends Aech (LENA WAITHE), Sho (PHILIP ZHAO), and Daito (WIN MORISAKI) have been searching for the eccentric developer's "Easter egg" that he hid somewhere in the vast expanses of the Oasis. With a prize worth half a trillion dollars and sole control of the Oasis to whoever finds the egg, everyone has been searching but no one has come close to finding the first of three keys that will lead to that egg. That includes IOI CEO Nathan Sorrento (BEN MENDELSOHN) who's employed an array of people to find the keys, including VR gamers known as "sixers." But the one person Parzival is most interested in is Art3mis (OLIVIA COOKE), a confident and strong-willed young woman who initially sees Parzival as a rival for the egg, but eventually comes to know him as her friend.

When Parzival manages to find the first key, that draws the interest of Sorrento who employs agents both in the real world -- such as the steely goon, F'Nale Zandor (HANNAH JOHN-KAMEN) -- and virtual world, namely in the form of the menacing and heavily armed I-Rok (T.J. MILLER) -- to find Parzival and his real-world alter-ego so that he can get his hands on that egg and control the Oasis. But Parzival and his friends don't want that to happen and thus do what they can to undermine the corporate villain while searching for the two last keys that will lead them to the egg.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
There's no denying there's an art to creating movie trailers. After all, you have to cull through ninety minutes to three hours of footage, pick out shots or clips that will stand out, and use those to tell enough of the story to entice viewers to buy a ticket, but not give away too much to make them think they just saw the CliffsNotes version and thus don't need to see the full thing. It's a lot of pressure when you have two or so minutes to try to attract viewers to a film that could have a hefty, low to mid nine-figure production cost associated with it that needs to be recouped.

As creative people have shown online, however, you can edit new -- unauthorized -- trailers from existing footage and completely change the apparent tone and genre of most any film, such as the horror film "The Shining" being turned into the feel-good romantic comedy "Shining" (look it up if you haven't seen it). The point is, talented professional and amateur editors can take footage and make a film appear promising through the trailer they create, even when -- as cinematic history has shown time and again -- the full film is mediocre or even downright awful.

Thus, when a trailer looks bad, it sounds the alarms, fires off the distress flares, and generally makes people worry that something might be amiss or terribly wrong with the finished film if that's the best they could find and assemble to promote their film. Such seemed to be the case for many -- including yours truly -- upon seeing the initial trailer for "Ready Player One," based on Ernest Cline's 2011 sci-fi novel of the same name. In full disclosure, I haven't read that but knew what it was generally about, and having Steven Spielberg attached to it as the director certainly piqued my interest.

But that initial trailer was downright awful, making the film look like an incoherent mess of frenetic and frantic CGI effects. Thankfully, just as great trailers can hide awful movies, awful trailers -- purposefully or not (I'm assuming the latter in this case) -- can sometimes represent a far better film than what's being advertised. Thankfully, that's what's at hand here with this offering, a movie made for pop culture geeks of various ages, although I think mine (those who hit 18 in the early 1980s) might get the lion's share of material lovingly extracted from our youth.

Spielberg directs from Zak Penn and Cline's screenplay adaptation of the latter's work and gets a lot of exposition out of the way fairly quickly, as narrated by our protagonist, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan). It seems that despite advances in technology (such as drone delivery of pizza), life in 2045 isn't great, at least in our section of Columbus, Ohio where all anyone wants is escape from the real world. And thus they enter a virtual one called the Oasis, created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance) where gamers can be anyone or anything they want, and the place is teeming with cultural references spanning the decades.

But there is a larger glimmer of hope as the VR world's developer hid a so-called Easter egg somewhere in the vast expanses of fakery that can be found if three keys are discovered, resulting in a hefty payday and sole control of the Oasis. So far, no one has been able to find even just one of those in the five years since Halliday's passing, but that hasn't deterred Parzival (Wade's VR avatar) or a host of other people -- such as the protagonist's best friend, Aech (Lena Waithe), or the rival girl, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), he's drawn to -- neither of which he's ever met in the real world -- from engaging in Easter egg mania.

The first big action sequence in the film is a road race through the Oasis where a wide variety of entrants, vehicles and obstacles are in play, with the latter including not only a T-Rex (presumably from Spielberg's "Jurassic Park") but also King Kong himself who's given up swatting biplanes in favor of smashing and stomping cars, motorcycles and such from ever crossing the finish line. And those are just the beginning of pop culture creations and characters that populate the film pretty much from start to finish. Accordingly, one could say this offering is something akin to "Avatar" meets "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."

And that inclusion of both famous and obscure pop culture eventually leads to the film's signature and, by far, most inspired and brilliant moment where the various characters literally find themselves in Stanley Kubrick's horror masterpiece, "The Shining." While we don't ever see Jack or the other central figures, much of the Overlook Hotel and all of its creepy rooms and many minor characters are present in all of their horror glory, faithfully and perfectly recreated by this film's special effects crew. It's an amazing sequence filled with frights, laughs and enough references to make any film geeky giddy with excitement.

Considering that, it's too bad there aren't more scenes like that, or that this one appears midway through the film rather than at the end, as I ended up expecting another and possibly better one to show up at some point (including wondering if it would be from one of Spielberg's films or another he idolized). Instead, we just get random characters and objects inserted just about everywhere, which is fun, but not as fully creative as the Kubrick homage sequence.

It also doesn't help that villain (Ben Mendelsohn) is one-dimensional and his corporate-based motivation is hazy at best. Had I written the part, I would have done something perhaps along the lines of having his grandparents be so addicted to video games in the past that their children (and thus the villain's parents) ultimately forbade video games, meaning he grew up without them and thus wants to control this world for missing out on that growing up. Likewise, I also would have given him the "power" to pick and choose from a wide variety of movie or TV villains from the past to try to stop our heroes. The sky would have been the limit, but I guess getting rights to use such characters on screen would have been daunting (as compared to in a book that allows for more creative license and borrowing).

To be clear, those aren't huge problems for the film to overcome, but I think a number of changes could have turned a good movie into a great one. As it stands, it's a fun and wild ride down memory lane as filtered through the ultimate mash-up of pop culture icons. And I'm guessing the pic will be nearly as fun to watch the second time around in hopes of catching everything that might have been missed with the first pass. But I wonder how well the film will hold up with repeat viewings after that, what with a lackluster villain and a storyline that really isn't as interesting as the basic premise that fuels it. As a first-time experience, however, the offering is quite a fun and frenetic blast, and is far, far better than that initial movie trailer suggested. "Ready Player One" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed March 26, 2018 / Posted March 30, 2018


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