Ready Player One

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Ready Player One comes just in time for Easter. Steven Spielberg’s action adventure is set in the not-so- distant future of 2045, and it’s got an an Easter egg at the center of its plot. The egg is virtual, one of those secrets hidden in computer games, and most of the action takes place in the Oasis—it’s a virtual-reality game that gives players around the globe an addictive alternative to the squalor of the real world.

In some ways it’s very much a Spielberg film, with sensational chases, startling vistas, beguiling humor, bright flashes of young romance. This time, though, Spielberg serves both as sorcerer and apprentice. The technology that enabled him to conjure up all this spectacular stuff seems to have taken on a life of its own. The multilayered script has a lot on its mind, but ideas-- and feelings—have to compete with a relentless succession of computer- generated sequences that don’t differ all that much from what we see on multiplex screens every summer.

The story involves kids with virtual reality visors and haptic suits for tactile enhancement roaming the Oasis, as avatars, in search of the ultimate Easter egg. Whoever finds it wins not only the Oasis but the matchlessly powerful corporation that owns it.

Part of the fun of this scheme lies in anonymity—no one knows who’s behind the avatars in real life. But the main source of fun comes from nostalgia, specifically for the 1980s. “Ready Player One” is a living museum that Easter-eggs us on with countless ’80s references, many obscure and others as obvious as the DeLorean from “Back To the Future,” or riffs on “The Shining,” “Saturday Night Fever” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” And all of it culminates in a race that sends King Kong and Mechagodzilla, among many others, careening through Manhattan.

But what’s wrong with this picture, or the particularly feverish parts of it? Well, you can find a clue in the Amblin Entertainment logo that opens the show. It’s the silhouette from Spielberg’s 1982 masterpiece, “E.T.”—the boy on his bike with the extraterrestrial hidden in plain sight on the handlebars. You don’t have to be an 80s geek to remember how your heart soared when that bike lifted magically into the sky, or the pleasures of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”; the swooping and coursing of terrified crowds in “Empire of the Sun”; or the roller-coaster joys of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”

This new film is impressive, and technically cool, but also emotionally cool. There’s a fundamental mismatch between artist and material. Haptics weren’t needed to feel the emotional pull of Spielberg’s best films; they aimed for the heart and hit much more often than they missed. “Ready Player One” aims for the adrenal gland. Whether it reaches its target, and its young target audience, remains to be seen.

I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.

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Joe Morgenstern