(director: Steven Spielberg; screenwriters: Zak Penn/Ernest Cline/based on the book by Ernest Cline; cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski; editors: Sarah Broshar, Michael Kahn; music: Alan Silvestri; cast: Tye Sheridan (Wade Watts-Parzival), Olivia Cooke (Samantha -Art3mis), Ben Mendelsohn (Nolan Sorrento), Lena Waithe (Aech-Helen), Philip Zhao (Sho), Win Morisaki)(Daito), Mark Rylance (Halliday-Anorak), T. J. Miller (I-R0k), Hannah John-Kamen (F’Nale Zandor), Simon Pegg (Ogden Morrow-Curatr), Susan Lynch (Alice), Ralph Ineson (Rick), Clare Higgins (Mrs. Gilmore); Runtime: 140; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Donald De Line, Dan Farah, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Steven Spielberg; Warner Bros. Pictures; 2018)
Underwhelming, overlong and breezy sci-fi blockbuster. It’s an ironic ode to pop culture, geeks and virtual reality.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Steven Spielberg (“The Post”/”Bridge of Spies”) helms this underwhelming, overlong and breezy sci-fi blockbuster. It’s an ironic ode to pop culture, geeks and virtual reality. It’s a gamer sci-fi film that wants to connect with the masses but overwhelms us with sentimentality, fan boy sensibilities and a dystopian futuristic adventure tale that lacks fervor. Spielberg uses the basic plot of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the stale story line. The heavily bombarded CGI film is based on the bestseller 2011 sci-fi novel of Ernest Cline, with the cloying screenplay by Zak Penn and the author.

The cyberscape sets are dazzling, while the live cartoonish action sequences are mostly dull. Its also filled with awkward dialogue, stiff acting (the exception being the great Mark Rylance) and endless cultural references aimed at I suppose its target audience of 1980s pop culture fans.The world has gone to seed in 2045, as cities because of over-population and neglect have people living in over-crowded stacks (trailers piled on top of one another) as the planet is on the verge of collapse. The masses find escape in playing the OASIS, a massive virtual reality universe game created by the late nerd madman genius from Columbus, Ohio, Jim Halliday (Mark Rylance). The teen protagonist (the usual Spielberg innocent underdog boy) is the orphan Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who lives in a pig sty with his vulnerable Aunt Alice (Susan Lynch) — beaten-down by life and her violent boyfriend (Ralph Ineson). The kid lives to get away from his miserable life by playing OASIS. On a video after his death, Halliday announces that he hid three keys in the OASIS and whoever finds these invisible items will inherit its ownership and its trillion dollars of assets. By getting the 3 keys the winner will be led to the ultimate Easter egg and be able to operate the OASIS on his own. The timid kid puts on his digital visor to play the game as an independent Easter egg hunter or as it’s called here a “gunter, ” and he becomes the dashing Parzival avatar. Meanwhile the villain, a greedy and ruthless corporate head of IOI, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), uses his corporate power to unfairly play the game so he can win by any means possible over the many competitors. “Z”, short for Parzival, pals around with people he met only in VR and never in real-life–his best friend is Aech (Lena Waithe). The rest of the crew include Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki). Z, for the contest, assiduously studies Halliday for his memories and what his journals say about his obsessions. Z, while on a VR excursion into an imagined Manhattan, falls for fellow treasure hunter Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) who crashes her Kaneda bike (from “Akira”) during a drag race and he gets it fixed in Aech’s garage. Although she is at first hesitant to let him get to know her in the real world as Samantha, they soon connect and go partners in the contest. But the closer that Wade/Z. and his friends get to Halliday’s treasure, the more that IOI bigwig Sorrento (in a hammy stint) tries to destroy them and take over the OASIS for himself by using his evil henchmen Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen) and the kvetching monster I-R0k (T. J. Miller) to do the thuggish work. After the second key is pursued, somehow we get pushed into Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). and the film seems hopelessly lost trying to explain how it got there while also trying to explain Kubrick’s much superior mystical film. Though Spielberg still knows how to tell a story and is as ever a fine craftsman, this is still a minor video-game movie. Its fun, I suppose, is going with his many pop cultural references that include a DeLorean time machine car from ‘Back to the Future’, a raging King Kong in a Manhattan sequence and enough trivia about John Hughes movies to maybe entice you to have a Tab. The film challenges you to guess the many hidden references to pop culture, which makes it a movie for film buffs, gamers and lovers of retro trivia. Spielberg’s main point is that virtual reality in our present time has become more real than reality and that is not such a good thing.

Unfortunately, his coming-of-age love story never develops as a believable real world romance, as the cartoon characters only advance the VR plot line and not a real love story we could care about (so much for his sermon on reality).

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