In a dystopian, post-apocalyptic 2045, most people escape their sucky lives by logging on to an expansive virtual universe called OASIS and living as their more attractive avatars. When its eccentric creator (Mark Rylance) dies, he releases a video challenging players to find a hidden digital Easter Egg that will grant the winner his huge fortune as well as control of OASIS, and the game’s afoot!
The film critic’s common put-down, “It plays like a video game,” though accurate, cannot be meaningfully applied here, simply because this is Steven Spielberg’s unapologetic, exuberant, crowd-pleaser about people playing a video game.
Adapted from Ernest Cline’s 80s-stuffed, 2011 fanboy novel, the story starts when the real-world Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) decides to go after the prize, and his avatar Parzifal meets online and teams up with the street smart and lovely Art3mis (Olivia Cooke).
They’re up against a huge info corporation known as iOi, run by CEO Mark Zuckerberg—sorry, Nolan Sorrento—(Ben Mendelsohn), who has fielded an army of avatar treasure hunters. If he wins he will monetize the game (“We can sell up to 80 percent of a user’s visual field before inducing seizures”).
It’s also a delightful homage to 80s movies from Saturday Night Fever to The Shining (but, oddly, Spielberg mostly leaves out his own work). Does this geekfest rate among Spielberg’s best? Not really; the emotional charge is meager at best. But it is hands-down the most energetic and visually rewarding popcorn flick of the year. Big screen, please. (140 min)