Spielberg rediscovers his boy-genius mojo with ‘Ready Player One’

If a mosquito bit Steven Spielberg around the time he was making “Jurassic Park,” then became trapped in amber until some nut with more money than forethought extracted the DNA from it and cloned an early ’90s version of Spielberg, well, that’s the guy I could see directing “Ready Player One.”

But for the actual Spielberg, now 71, to be able to tap into his boy-genius mojo after the likes of “Schindler’s List,” “Amistad” and “Munich” to deliver such a rousing technical achievement while incorporating the broken families and outsiders of some of his best-loved works is nothing short of phenomenal.

Based on the novel by Ernest Cline, who co-wrote the script with Zak Penn (“The Incredible Hulk”), “Ready Player One” is centered around young Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, “X-Men: Apocalypse”). An orphan living with his aunt and her latest loser boyfriend in the Stacks, a series of mobile homes literally stacked like makeshift high-rises in Columbus, Ohio, Wade finds refuge in the virtual universe known as the OASIS.

It’s 2045, years after the corn syrup droughts and the bandwidth riots, and almost everyone, regardless of their income, practically lives inside the OASIS. And why wouldn’t they when they can do literally anything Spielberg and Warner Bros. could obtain the rights to, including climbing Mount Everest with Batman?

Inside the OASIS, Wade is known by his avatar Parzival. In real life, he’s never even met his best friend, whose avatar, Aech, is a massive, beastly mechanic. They’re mostly content to drive in street races for coins and a chance to unlock the first piece of the puzzle that the late OASIS designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance) left as a Willy Wonka-style inheritance. Whoever finds the three keys and the Easter egg hidden somewhere in the OASIS will control the virtual world as well as Halliday’s vast fortune.

It’s been five years since Halliday died, and no one has even cracked the first clue. Warner Bros. could sponsor a similar contest, asking moviegoers to spot all the pop-culture references in “Ready Player One” and it would prove nearly as difficult. (To give you a hint without ruining any of the surprises, the DeLorean from “Back to the Future” and the Iron Giant are on the movie’s poster.)

But after Parzival saves Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, “Bates Motel”), who resembles a sexy, anime porcupine, during a race, he starts to take the contest much more seriously. They’re determined to keep the OASIS in the hands of Gunters (egg hunters) like themselves and Aech and away from the Sixers, debtors who’ve been co-opted into hunting for the egg by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, “Bloodline”), the nefarious head of Innovative Online Industries.

They’ll also have to survive the bounty hunter known as i-R0k, who shares the voice and, most hilariously, the attitude of T.J. Miller (“Silicon Valley”) and looks like Skeletor ate another Skeletor and then coughed up a RoboCop.

The virtual world of the OASIS looks nearly as magical on screen as it must to the millions of its goggled users. To emphasize the contrast, Spielberg created the OASIS scenes digitally using computer animation and motion-capture technology and shot the real-world moments on film. The effect is like bouncing back and forth between the Technicolor wonderland of Oz and the drab black-and-white Kansas.

“Ready Player One” goes on a bit too long, and several of the non-OASIS scenes tend to drag. Moviegoers who aren’t obsessed with video games or didn’t come of age with Buckaroo Banzai may be left scratching their heads during the onslaught of pop-culture references that come across in various avatars. Many of them stem from the late 1970s through the early 1990s, the era with which Halliday, whom Rylance portrays as Bill Gates by way of an aging Garth Algar from “Wayne’s World,” identifies.

It’s tough to tell whether the Gunters are obsessed with that era because they’re obsessed with Halliday, or if they’re simply immersing themselves in the nostalgia to give them an edge in the contest.

Regardless of their intent, “Ready Player One’s” massive battle scene with trademarks colliding like rarely before, has taken an early lead for biggest geek-out of the year. It’s like “The Lego Movie,” only with more heart — and more joyous thrills, depending on how well you know your movie, music and video game history.

Just like Halliday’s contest, “Ready Player One” is designed to reward the nerdiest among us.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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