It's not hard to see the appeal that Ernest Cline's best-selling novel "Ready Player One" held for Steven Spielberg and Warner Bros. Pictures. Cline's story proposes a virtual world populated with pop-culture figures from the 1950s to the 2010s, and at a time when intellectual property rules the movie industry -- when anything with name recognition or once-upon-a-time success is ripe for rebooting -- a story that makes it cool for even young gamers to value back-catalog brands is just the golden ticket for rippling profits and granting "extra lives" to old games, shows and movies.
But darn it all: An echo chamber isn't as fun as it sounds, even when it's the only game in town. That's the case in the film's setting of 2045, when seemingly the entire population lives less in the real world (an income-inequality nightmare of massive suburban projects and gleaming corporate towers) than in the virtual universe called the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation). The brainchild of a spacy, Timothy Leary-meets-Steve Jobs type named James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and his partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), the OASIS has consumed global culture by turning the internet into a virtual-reality playhouse.
In Columbus, Ohio -- the fastest-growing city around, we're assured for plot reasons -- 18-year-old orphan Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, looking suspiciously like a young-Steven Spielberg avatar) wants out of his dead-end trailer-park existence ("These days, reality's a bummer ..."), so he's obsessively playing the equivalent of a global lottery. Upon Halliday's death, the eccentric genius left behind instructions for a winner-take-all challenge within the OASIS: find three well-hidden keys and the OASIS will be yours. Given the place's market value, the challenge appeals more or less equally to aspiring have-nots and greedy haves, the latter category dominated by Innovative Online Industries and its corporate-raider CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).
Along the way, "Ready Player One" makes time for a virtual romance between Wade (in his avatar form of Parzival) and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), both top-ranked players within the OASIS. With a few others -- H (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki) -- Parzival and Art3mis crack clues and chase down the keys that will unlock the ultimate "Easter egg." The gaming challenges form the film's grand set pieces: a wild drag race through a New York cityscape, a romp through the setting of a famous film (one of Spielberg's personal favorites), and epic battle scenes between IOI's army of indentured data miners and -- speaking of Easter eggs the identifiable avatars adopted by scores of fanboys and fangirls.
Crammed with allusions, crowded with plot points, "Ready Player One" conjures plenty of empty spectacle (awesome or wearying, depending on one's taste), but doesn't underpin it with characters that move beyond the generic or, more crucially, the productively sharp satire that just maybe could have saved this ain't-it-cool story from itself. Screenwriters Zak Penn and Cline adapt the latter's work with a minimum of irony, a strange choice for the tale of a rebellion fighting for an illusion. In the end, Spielberg and company attempt a halfhearted social message about striking a game-life balance, but "Ready Player One" ultimately plays like a tricked-out "TRON" remake, pandering to gamers and geeks rather than giving them something of substance to chew on.