SPIEL­BERG GOES BACK TO THE FU­TURE IN 'READY PLAYER ONE'

Sun.Star Cebu Weekend - - Film - Review: Jake Coyle AP Film Writer Im­ages: Warner Bros. Pic­tures via AP

"Why can't we go back­ward for once?" won­ders the pro­tag­o­nist of "Ready Player One" shortly be­fore gun­ning his "Back to the Fu­ture" DeLorean in re­verse. "Re­ally put the pedal to the metal."

Press­ing rewind is, if any­thing, an un­der­stand­able de­sire these days. But in to­day's re­boot, re­make-mad movies, it's not ex­actly swim­ming against the tide. Yet Steven Spiel­berg's "Ready Player One," a rol­lick­ing virtual-world geek­fest flooded by '80s ephemera, doesn't just want to wade back into the past. It wants to race into it at full throt­tle. For those who get their fix through pop nos­tal­gia, "Ready Player One" is — for bet­ter or worse — an in­dul­gent, dizzy­ing over­dose.

In a dystopian 2045 where the world looks mostly like a trash heap, teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheri­dan) lives in "The Stacks"

— not aisles of books but tow­er­ing piles of mo­bile homes — in Colum­bus, Ohio, with his aunt. "These days," he nar­rates, "re­al­ity's a bum­mer." With bleak­ness all around, seem­ingly ev­ery­one is ad­dicted to strap­ping on a head­set and en­ter­ing the virtual-re­al­ity land­scape of the OA­SIS. There, an in­di­vid­ual can trans­form into a dig­i­tal avatar — live­ac­tion or an­i­mated, hu­man or ex­trater­res­trial, Sonny or Cher — and do ba­si­cally any­thing. Your imag­i­na­tion is your only limit. You can even, we're told, climb Mt. Ever­est with Bat­man! Pre­sum­ably the thin air would make him less grumpy.

It's been five years since the death of OA­SIS cre­ator James Hal­l­i­day (Mark Ry­lance), a fizzy-haired Steve Jobs-meets-Willy Wonka nerd de­ity who left be­hind a trio of Easter Eggs — hid­den clues — in his game. The first one to find the keys and fol­low them to the end will win the rights to the tril­lion-dol­lar

com­pany. Wade, who goes by Parzi­val in­side OA­SIS, is among the com­peti­tors still try­ing to crack the first chal­lenge — a blis­ter­ing melee through New York City streets where rac­ers must evade, among other things, King Kong and the T-Rex from "Juras­sic Park."

At the film's SXSW pre­miere, Spiel­berg in­tro­duced "Ready Player One," based on Ernest Cline's 2011 best-seller, as a "movie," not a "film." Spiel­berg, too, is here turn­ing back the clock — just four months af­ter re­leas­ing his well-timed ode to the free­dom of the press, "The Post" — with a thrill-ride spec­ta­cle that harkens back to his pre-"Schindler's List" days and the more pop­corn-friendly flights of movie magic that Spiel­berg con­jured be­fore fo­cus­ing on more "se­ri­ous" tales.

The funny, some­times awk­ward irony of "Ready Player One" is that Spiel­berg isn't just mak­ing a movie like his old movies; he's mak­ing a movie awash with his old movies. Sound­ing al­most em­bar­rassed, Spiel­berg — who ini­tially thought a younger direc­tor ought to di­rect Cline and Zak Penn's script — has said he stripped out many of his own ref­er­ences from the screen­play.

But the uni­verse of "Ready Player One" re­mains a lov­ing, fan­boy homage to the es­capist en­ter­tain­ments Spiel­berg did more than any­one to cre­ate. "Ready Player One" could con­ceiv­ably be ti­tled "Spiel­berg: The Remix." Watch­ing it is a lit­tle like see­ing him sit in with a Spiel­berg cover band — a band that's, like, to­tally stoked to have the mas­ter in their midst.

It's also an op­por­tu­nity for one of cin­ema's most ab­surdly skilled and most in­sanely pop­u­lar di­rec­tors to reckon with both his block­buster legacy and the more dig­i­tally versed gen­er­a­tions of fan­tasy-seek­ers that have fol­lowed him. In the OA­SIS, there are solo play­ers called "gun­ters" like Parzi­val and his VR-crush Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who be­lieve deeply in the game and its maker. And there are com­pa­nies, specif­i­cally one called In­no­va­tive On­line In­dus­tries led by a slick suit named Nolan Sor­rento (Ben Men­del­sohn), who sends armies of play­ers into bat­tle in hopes of cap­tur­ing the lu­cra­tive com­pany and — in the most sin­is­ter of anti-nerd plots — open up OA­SIS to ad­ver­tis­ing.

When it's not ca­reen­ing through '80s ref­er­ences from Toot­sie Roll Pop com­mer­cials to Bucka­roo Ban­zai, "Ready Player One" is an In­ter­net para­ble. There's men­tion of prior "band­width riots" ahead of this bat­tle over keep­ing OA­SIS an open play­ground to all. "Ready Player One" is both game and war, the stakes of which are oc­ca­sion­ally less­ened by the fact that it's a land of make be­lieve. Much of "Ready Player One" also pro­motes a tire­some gamer culture where "real" fan­boys out­rank "haters," geeks vie with suits, and tech wiz­ards are slav­ishly wor­shipped. In be­tween the book and the movie, Gamer­gate ex­posed the tox­i­c­ity of the video-game culture li­on­ized here.

As eye-pop­ping as is the kalei­do­scopic OA­SIS — a shinier, big­ger-bud­get, less funny pop-culture soup than the one stirred in "The Lego Movie" — "Ready Player One" is best when it keeps a foot in to the real world. That's clearly where Spiel­berg's heart is, and it's where, you can feel, he longs to lead his film. (Sorry, "movie.")

Still, Spiel­berg shows that he's just as ca­pa­ble as he ever was in mak­ing a rip-roar­ing spec­ta­cle. The mo­men­tum is head­long, the vis­ual fire­works are bril­liant and de­spite all the re­al­ity-flip­ping, ev­ery scene is per­fectly staged. For a back­ward­look­ing movie, it's in­cred­i­bly for­ward­mov­ing. Spiel­berg makes this stuff look eas­ier, and reg­is­ter more clearly, than any­one else in block­buster-mak­ing.

But if choos­ing be­tween vin­tage Spiel­berg and meta Spiel­berg, I still — not to sound too fan­boy-ish about it — pre­fer the gen­uine ar­ti­cle.

A scene from "Ready Player One," a film by Steven Spiel­berg.

From left: Tye Sheri­dan, Olivia Cooke, Philip Zhao and Win Morisaki in a scene from "Ready Player One."

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