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Brent Northup

Ready Player One

At the Cinemark

(PG-13)

Grade: B

Second Life is a popular and addictive videogame where players assume a new identity in the form of a personal avatar. It’s one example of a “massively multiplayer online role-playing game,” often referred to simply as of MMORPG.

In some ways, Second Life and its hipper relatives like World of Warcraft and Eve, are modern games of dress up.

Instead of going to the clothes closet for our makeover, players select their new “outfits” from a humongous walk-in cyber closet. The choices are limitless, including gender, race and class – and, yes, players also get to choose body type and clothes. And, controversially, players can often dictate how inhibited or uninhibited - how peaceful or warlike - that their new persona will be.

In essence, we are reborn in the image of our fantasies. We best beware what we pray for.

With the advent of virtual reality 3D goggles with vivid sound, players can now immerse themselves in a multi-dimensional world where their personal avatar interacts with others – a breathtaking imitation of reality.

That virtual world is so seductive that reality itself can become a boring alternative – and so the avatar becomes more real than its author.

Books and films jumped into stories of virtual life long ago, and a number of notable films such as “The Matrix,” “Inception” and even “Blade Runner” have all explored, in different ways, the blurry line that now separates reality and imagination.

Inevitably, Stephen Spielberg was bound to hop into these virtual waters, and in “Ready Player One” Spielberg dives in head first.

Without a doubt “Ready Player One” is one of the slickest and most ambitious virtual films yet – not too surprising, since Stephen doesn’t know the meaning of cinematic restraint.

Set in 2045, “Ready Player One” follows 18-year-old Wade Watts from reality into OASIS, the virtual world created by the mad genius James Halliday. Wade wears VR goggles and haptic gloves, which transport him into OASIS, allowing him to escape the dreary life on earth, presumably in ominous decline.

What might have been a philosophically and spiritually provocative journey plateaus quickly into a very simple treasure hunt – a search for three keys that unlock a door to fame and wealth. The lucky treasure hunter will gain ownership of OASIS and untold wealth.

That quest has been aptly compared to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and the search for the golden ticket in a Wonka bar.

But this time the keys lie inside a cyber puzzle that only a brilliant nerd could solve. Wade Watts, of course, is that super-bright boy.

I agree with one reviewer who called this a “corporate” science fiction film, as opposed to a cerebral one – meaning this is a rather conventional Spielberg blockbuster, not a mind-bending trip like Kubrick’s “2001” or Andrei Tarkovsky's “Solaris.”

Other directors like Christopher Nolan (“Inception,” “Memento”), Denis Villeneuve (“Blade Runner 2049,” “Sicario”) or Guillermo Del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Shape of Water”) would have imbued a VR story like this with considerably more intellectual depth and more darkness.

Even Alex Garland’s AI film “Ex Machina” was more thought-provoking.

Having said that, it’s time to acknowledge that “Ready Player One” is a well-made entertaining young adult movie packed with a trillion references to pop culture. Ernest Cline’s 2011 book set in 2044 has been called a “fun romp” and that describes the film as well.

Every character has two identities: their animated online avatar and their fleshy earthly self. The Spielberg’s special effect team does a nice job of keeping the two distinct.

Moviegoers, too, will be on a treasure hunt looking for clues in the form of nods to vintage video games and cinema, often from the 1980s. Warning: There are almost too many eggs in that basket of nostalgia.

The cast is clean-shaven and annoyingly cute, with one exception: Oscar-winner Mark Rylance is sensational as the quirky scientist James Halliday who founded OAISIS and, when he died, conceived of a treasure hunt to choose his successor.

The title refers to early video games which invited Player One to begin the game. Spielberg confesses he was addicted to video games in his youth.

I can imagine Spielberg making his first home movie, while a voiceover that sounds a lot like a Percy Rodriguez’ “Jaws” commercial saying, “Ready Player One.”

A final thought about the future of movies.

We’re not far away from attending a virtual movie where we moviegoers wear goggles and bring our own laptops. That already happened last Dec. 29 when Paramount launched its “Bigscreen” movie theater and invited virtual moviegoers to gather together for a shared virtual trip. Friends entered a virtual lobby, chose which “theater” they wished to enter and pressed an “invite your friends” button.

AMC has also invested in VR movie theaters, where moviegoers/players can interact with one another inside a motion picture experience. How that works, I have no idea – but I’m intrigued.

Virtual cinema is here, folks. Spielberg’s virtual romp is only the beginning.

We’re all about to become movie stars. Get your avatar ready and wait for the NASCAR-like voice that starts our virtual race: “Ready Player One.”

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