It should be so easy to follow and understand "Ready Player One." It is a movie, based on a hit book, that is supposed to be solely the sum of its influences, the most pervasive and mainstream of geek pop culture, and it follows the most basic of storylines, with a hero's journey that is almost beat for beat the same plot of the original "Star Wars." The movie should tug hard on the heartstrings of any sentient person who grew up at any point in the last 40 years; even people who carry no torch for old pop culture are generally at the mercy of the film's director, Steven Spielberg, who has been making audiences feel things since the early 70s.
What's baffling, then, is that "Ready Player One" is such an empty experience in every way. It was never teased as a particularly profound cinematic masterpiece, but even as a paean to beloved old fantasies and simplistic stories of good vs evil, it mostly rings hollow. Counterintuitively, the book offered too much to adapt, and in choosing the flashier surface elements, the core was left empty.
Ernest Cline's 2011 bestseller was like a fanboy's wet dreamset in a near-future dystopia where most everyone spends all their time logged into a next-next-level virtual reality world, in which knowledge of geek pop culture is insanely valuable and even the stuff of heroes. The hero is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an awkward geek whose parents were killed when he was young, forcing him to live with his poor aunt. The virtual world, known as The OASIS, is his refuge, and he knows all there is to know about video games, 80s movies and comic books. He's got a crush on a girl he's only seen as an avatar online (Olivia Cooke), who will soon enough present herself in the real world and not disappoint (told you, this really is a wet dream).
The girl's real name is Samantha, and she recruits Wade to her resistance army, which is trying to solve a set of riddles laid out by the late likely-autistic creator of the OASIS (Mark Rylance in a convincing white wig is one of the highlights). Wade has already dedicated his life to this hunt, both because it guarantees great riches and control of the OASIS, and because he wants to beat out IOI, the big bad corporation that's sparing no expense in trying to find the ultimate Easter egg, as they call it, first. The book explains that IOI's chief executive plans on privatizing the OASIS and making it impossible for poor people to access it, but the movie only makes a joke about how much ad space IOI could sell if they controlled the OASIS.
That being the case, we never really feel the stakes of the movie, but we are assured it's highly urgent. To be fair, it's not hard to hate giant corporations, especially ones run by someone as weasley as Ben Mendelsohn, who has no problem killing when needed, but there are no real personal stakes either.
Wade is even an avatar in real life, representing every geeky white guy who hates his real life and just wants someone to appreciate "Star Wars" with him. We know nothing about his thoughts, desires, habits or hobbies, and clearly they don't matter much, as he falls in love with Samantha before ever meeting her.
Wade's other virtual friends, each of whom he eventually meets IRL, are even more paper-thin. Lena Waithe plays his best friend, a hulking avatar who turns out to be a woman named Helen. She provides comic relief in VR form, and plenty of natural charm when we see her for real, but we know literally nothing about her, or any of the rest of the gang. That's a function of not being supposed to talk about your real life in the OASIS, but rules are made to be broken, and anyway, they're together in the real world long enough to flesh out some stories, even if the camera always does stay with Wade.
At two hours and twenty minutes, the film also really drags. The third act in particular takes forever, which is a snooze because again, we don't feel any stakes. When the nostalgic elements disappear for awhile, you realize how little there is to keep your attention.
The visual effects are incredible and the production design lavish, no question about it. But the whole message of the film is supposed to be that it's important to live in the real world, and "Ready Player One”" couldn't be more of a thin fantasy.