In “Ready Player One,” Steven Spielberg’s action-adventure about teenage rebels in a massive online video game, it helps to know a bit about cryptocurrency and virtual-reality rigs. The most important body of knowledge, though, dates back to an earlier era when emerging technology felt like magic: The 1980s.
If you know your Activision from your Atari, your John Hughes from your John Landis, your Magic 8 Ball from your Mad Ball, “Ready Player One” was made for you. It’s set in 2045, when citizens of a dreary world fulfill their fantasies in a virtual-reality world called the OASIS, yet “Ready Player One” is the rare young-adult movie during which parents may have to explain much of the dialogue to their kids, rather than the other way around. Dad, who was Buckaroo Banzai? Is there really a Shermer, Illinois? What’s a Gundam?
Written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (from Cline’s 2011 novel), “Ready Player One” is a timeless hero’s journey with touch-sensitive bodysuits and a New Order soundtrack. Its protagonist is Wade Watts, a bright but shy teenager (played by an earnest Tye Sheridan) whose online avatar is a confident cool kid named Parzival. Even in this handsome guise, though, Wade often ducks into the OASIS’ library to learn about James Halliday, the game’s spacey-brilliant creator (beautifully played by Mark Rylance with wide eyes and a Space Invaders tee). When Halliday died, he left a series of ’80s-related clues leading to the ultimate video game “Easter egg:” total ownership of the OASIS.
There will be a girl, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke); a military-industrial tyrant, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, looking eerily like Paul Gleason’s assistant principal in “The Breakfast Club”); and a rebel alliance that will help Wade get woke to real-world problems. T.J. Miller has an amusing turn as i-R0k, a hit man with a neck problem, while Lena Waithe (Netflix’s “Master of None”) pops up in a part best left a surprise.
The director of “Ready Player One,” himself a holdover from the ’80s, is back in action mode and at the top of his game after years of mostly grown-up dramas such as last year’s “The Post.” He deftly switches between the blinking, bleeping world of the OASIS (the frenetic car-race through a bizarro Manhattan is terrific) and the grayer, grittier reality outside. Meanwhile, there’s a touch of innocence that never lets us forget this dazzling spectacle is still basically a fairy tale. And that, kids, is what they call a movie.