Ah, arcades. Growing up, I couldn't get enough of them. Sure, on our family trips to the likes of Hampton Beach and Lake George, I enjoyed soaking up the sun and frolicking in the water but it was really those stops at the nearby arcades that most floated my boat. Pinball, Skee-Ball, shooting galleries, video games - these and more provided me with heaps of entertainment, especially (no surprise) the movie/TV-themed offerings, like the Phantom of the Opera and Twilight Zone pinball machines.
In terms of delivering thrills, Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One operates on about the same level as an arcade. It isn't the most sophisticated of offerings - and surely isn't top-tier Spielberg - but still mostly succeeds as a jolly, stimulating romp, only petering out a bit with about a half hour to go. (After all, even for an arcade nut, two hours and twenty minutes straight spent in one would be a bit much.)
The picture, based on Ernest Cline's eponymous novel, finds earth on the verge of collapse in the year 2045. Providing the human race a much-needed distraction is OASIS, a virtual reality universe created by the oddball James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Following his death, Halliday devised a tricky three-part contest for people worldwide which, if somehow won, would provide the lucky champion with Halliday's fortune and exclusive control over OASIS.
Among those competing for this glory is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a young wannabe-hero who has closely studied Halliday's past in search of clues to help unlock the mysteries to triumphing in this treasure hunt. After Wade emerges the first conqueror of part one of the contest, he collaborates with friends - the self-proclaimed High Five - on the dizzying journey to acing the remaining two parts. Hellbent on preventing his success is deranged businessman Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who has a vast fleet of troops determined to steamroll the High Five and claim victory.
Especially in the early-going, Ready Player One completely delivers the goods. Visually, the proceedings are truly awe-inspiring, with Spielberg staging several exciting set pieces and Mendelsohn, per usual, in brilliant, scene-stealing form. The incessant pop culture references are hit-or-miss but, without delving into spoilers, let's just say fans of '80s horror cinema are bound to have a fabulous time.
Acting-wise, the performances range from exceptional (Mendelsohn) to serviceable (Sheridan and leading lady Olivia Cooke) to atrocious (Rylance). Of course, in a CGI-packed extravaganza like this, acting prowess isn't squarely on the brain. The thing is, the visual effects too wind up rather uneven, genuinely spectacular in the first half but more chaotic and haphazard as the picture reaches its conclusion. There's one especially wild battle that draws characters from a plethora of past films and shows but the staging is so disorderly, Spielberg fails to much utilize them - odd, since the cost of obtaining rights to these figures could not have been cheap.
My qualms aside, I did have a blast with Ready Player One. It's admittedly one of those pictures you have a rollicking good time with...and then perhaps reflect back on it, questioning if it's really all that great. I do think it has its shares of flaws - in the Spielberg canon, I'd be pressed to rank it alongside Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, also fun but in the most supremely silly way - but there are certainly more boring, less satisfying ways to spend nearly two and half hours. Also, it's the sort of stunning film that demands to be seen on a big screen. Don't wait for Netflix.