‘Ready Player One’: Come play with us in Spielberg’s dazzling virtual universe

SHARE ‘Ready Player One’: Come play with us in Spielberg’s dazzling virtual universe
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As his virtual-reality alter ego Parzival, Wade (Tye Sheridan, left) encounters Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) in the Oasis universe in “Ready Player One.” | WARNER BROS.

Star Trek, Star Wars, Freddy Krueger, Christine

Space Invaders, T Rex, Gandalf and the A-Team

Willy Wonka, Lara Croft, Harley Quinn and King Kong

Batman, Chucky, Iron Giant, hang on this list is getting long!

We didn’t start the fire …

Oh wait. We’re not updating Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” we’re listing just SOME of the many, many, many pop culture references in Steven Spielberg’s eye-popping, mind-blowing, candy-colored, fantastically entertaining (albeit slightly exhausting) virtual reality fantasy adventure “Ready Player One.”

You need to see this one on the biggest screen possible, and let it wash over you as if you had stepped inside the most incredible video game experience ever created — one in which events in the manufactured universe can have lasting and serious real-world consequences.

EThis is not your uncle’s “Tron.” This is some next-level stuff, a CGI-dominated concoction, using ingredients from “Back to the Future,” “Willy Wonka,” “Mad Max,” “Lord of the Rings,” “The Matrix,” the aforementioned “Tron,” “Iron Giant,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” countless video games and of course the 2011 science fiction novel of the same name by Ernest Cline, upon which this film is based.

“Ready Player One” is set in the dystopian future (is there any other kind of future in the movies?), namely, Columbus, Ohio, in 2045.

Columbus, we’re told, is “the fastest-growing city in the world,” but not in a good way. Most people live in “The Stacks,” grimy and depressed areas in which trailer homes are perched atop one another, Jenga-style, to create wobbly tenement high-rises. Just about everyone is living at or below the poverty line.

Life in the Stacks is representative of life around the world, which is why people of all ages spend as much time as they can wearing 3-D headsets and (if they have the money) specialized bodysuits and diving deep into the Oasis, an enormous amusement park universe of the imagination.

(We’re told the “Corn Syrup Droughts” and “The Bandwidth Riots” were major contributors to the downfall of real-world society.)

There’s a casino the size of an entire planet. Multiple worlds where enormous beasts and fierce robots clash with humans. Fantasy experiences that are virtually indistinguishable (and infinitely more exotic) than anything you’d find in your real life.

Mark Rylance plays Oasis creator James Halliday. | WARNER BROS.

Mark Rylance plays Oasis creator James Halliday. | WARNER BROS.

Tye Sheridan plays Wade Watts (“my father gave me that name because it sounded like the alias of a superhero, like Peter Parker or Bruce Banner”), a smart and likable geek whose Avatar, Parzival, makes him look like Teen Ryan Gosling. (Nobody uses their real names in the Oasis. It’s part of the fantasy. That beautiful girl you’re talking to could be an old man; that 8-foot-tall beast might actually be a little boy from halfway around the world.)

The great Mark Rylance strikes all the right notes in his portrayal of James Halliday, the Steve Jobs-ian legend who invented the Oasis. Halliday is a socially awkward genius who seems to be on the spectrum of myriad conditions, dresses like he’s 12, has a deadpan sense of humor — and oh yes, is dead.

And yet Halliday lives on as a virtual-world wizard who inserted a three-part quest into the Oasis — and if anyone is clever enough to solve it, that individual will inherit Halliday’s hundreds of billions, and more importantly, have control over the Oasis itself.

Individuals such as Parzival and his best friends Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe) who are questing for the three keys are known as “Gunters.” They’re decided underdogs against the vast team of virtual world warriors working for the all-powerful Innovative Online Industries (IOI), headed by its ruthless chairman Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, hamming it up), a one-time intern for Halliday.

Corporate exec Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is one of Wade’s rivals to take over Oasis. | WARNER BROS.

Corporate exec Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is one of Wade’s rivals to take over Oasis. | WARNER BROS.

We spend a scene here and there in the real world, but the primary setting of “Ready Player One” is the Oasis. That’s where Parzival falls in love with Art3mis (even though he’s never met her in the real world). That’s where our heroes team up to solve all the riddles and sidestep all the pitfalls and figure out all the Easter Eggs mapped out by Halliday. That’s where they walk into a theater showing “The Shining” — and find themselves essentially inside the movie, complete with creepy twin girls at the end of the hallway, haunting photos on the wall, that terrifying maze, etc., etc.

It helps a LOT if you’ve seen “The Shining.” If you haven’t, that scene might be more baffling than hilariously scary. It also helps a lot if you’re familiar with at least a good portion of all the other references that come at us as if Spielberg is wielding a giant Pop Culture Paint Gun with a bottomless supply of ammunition.

Even the 1980s-dominated pop soundtrack is in keeping with the multi-layered approach. Hey, that’s “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears! Perfect for a storyline about trying to win a race and be given the chance to rule the world. Also, that song was featured in the 1985 sci-fi comedy adventure “Real Genius,” which including a reclusive, child-like genius character!

The 71-year-old Spielberg is like one of those rock gods who joins the kids onstage at some all-star jam and blows everyone away. His technique is as masterful in this genre as it was when he was scaring the life out of everyone with “Jaws” in the 1970s, melting our hearts with “E.T.” in the 1980s, bringing dinos back to life with “Jurassic Park” in the 1990s and delivering a chilling vision of the future with “Minority Report” in the 2000s.

If “Ready Player One” had been directed by a 26-year-old, the movie world would be flipping out over the new visionary on the map.

★★★1⁄2

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, based on Cline’s novel. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, nudity and language). Running time: 140 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.

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