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'Ready Player One' review: Spielberg mines the '80s but not so deep

Steven Spielberg's celebration of pop culture premieres at SXSW to a cheering crowd. It's got tons of fun references, but not a lot of depth.

Jaap Buitendijk

At a pivotal moment near the climax of the world premiere of Steven Spielberg's "Ready Player One" at South by Southwest, the sound cut out and the projectionist stopped the movie.

After some initial yowling from the SXSW festival audience at the packed Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas, phones came out and lit up. Turns out we couldn't make it through even a few minutes of technical difficulties without busting out our backup screens.

"Ready Player One" follows real people in a VR-obsessed future and their colorful digital counterparts.

Warner Bros

So it's not hard to buy the premise of "Ready Player One," in which societal problems have pushed us into the arms of technology offering an escape.

Or as protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) puts it, "Reality is a bummer."

Yup, we know.

"Ready Player One," based on the best-selling 2011 novel by Ernest Cline, centers on a virtual reality universe called the Oasis that's based largely on 1980s movies and video games. When Oasis creator James Halliday dies, he reveals he's left behind an Easter egg somewhere among the game's myriad pop culture references. The person who finds three keys and three gates that ultimately lead to the egg will inherit both Halliday's fortune and control of the Oasis. Since the outside world continues to suck, egg hunters (called gunters) set aside their real lives to dive into the game and sift through the retro ephemera.

That includes Wade, a teenager whose IRL residence is a place called the Stacks -- a verticaly stacked trailer park -- as he and some of his digital buddies make the first steps toward solving the challenges Halliday left behind.

You might expect the film to offer an underlying cautionary tale about not abandoning the physical world for digital fantasy. But there isn't -- after all, who's to say digital life isn't real? Instead, "Ready Player One" is more about protecting and preserving something people love from those who would exploit it. Our plucky heroes face the vague yet soul-suckingly-named corporate behemoth Innovative Online Industries, which also want control of Oasis -- and not because they just really dig it.

So chief IOI bad guy Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is shown as being at his worst when he wants to wring the Oasis for all it's worth. For Wade and company, the Oasis means everything -- for Sorrento, it genuinely means nothing.

Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke get ready.

Warner Bros

This idea flicks at one particular tension that's sure to crop up in discussions of the movie. Not only is the original book a joyfully nerdy read, but over the years, it's been embraced and tightly held by those anxiously waiting for the day we actually have a shared VR world of our own: a metaverse. "Ready Player One," like Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash," has a near-holy book status in the VR community. Both stories confront the same central question: Who will own the future?

However, there's something important you've got to keep in mind: This isn't just a movie, it's a Spielberg movie, which means it's built for everyone.

Now playing: Watch this: 'Ready Player One' trailer shows an escape to danger
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Even though Cline co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn, the movie takes some sizable departures from the book. Spielberg honors Cline's knack for baking in references to '80s movies, music, arcade games and video games on every page. In the first scene of the movie, Van Halen's "Jump" signals we're in for a plunge into heady nostalgia, with Spielberg even mining his own back catalogue.

Right before the screening, though, Spielberg himself told the SXSW crowd we didn't have to catch every reference in the movie in order to enjoy it. He compared it to driving a car: The main story is what you see looking through the windshield, while the pop paraphernalia is everything to the sides.

Even staring straight ahead, there are moments when the basic three-part overarching structure of the story get muddy. Some of Wade's friends, like Japanese brothers Daito (Win Morisaki) and Shoto (Philip Zhao) and even T.J. Miller's comical supporting villain i-R0k are thinly drawn. What character development there is often comes in the form of exposition, straight from the mouths of characters like badass heroine Art3mis (Olivia Cooke).

For all the superficial pleasures of seeing so many video game styles and characters and Easter eggs thrown at the screen in epic, glossy CG, "Ready Player One" never totally fills out what should be the most satisfying part of the story: A David and Goliath tale marinaded in teenage wish fulfillment. And what are video games if not a sizable dose of wish fulfilment?

That's not to say it isn't fun. It is.

There's plenty of humor and enormous visual spectacle to enjoy. Lena Waithe in particular is a blast. The crowd at the premiere certainly clapped and hollered at every turn.

But pop culture nudges and winks will take a story only so deep, however, when there are so many relevant themes to explore. Instead of thinking about the disconnect between our real and online selves, to the precariousness of our privacy, to our need to stay plugged in, "Ready Player One" just keeps playing old games.

Reality can be a bummer, but it's a bummer best dealt with directly.

At least until we get an actual metaverse.

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