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'Ready Player One,' all retro references and CGI dazzle, lacks emotional pull of Spielberg classics

After two hours of pop clutter and video game clatter, Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One has the audacity to proclaim reality matters. Kind of like a snuff film with an end note saying murder is bad.

Ready Player One is soulless validation of a culture I've never wished to understand and shallow nostalgia no one should. It's a theme park ride but not the rollercoaster Spielberg hopes. More like It's a Small Virtual World, careening through gamer nirvana, jerking viewers to and fro among everything Gen X retro.

Based on Ernest Cline's novel, Ready Player One is Spielberg's return to blockbuster fantasy where he made his dinosaur bones. In the virtual reality conceit, anything is possible and that's too much for his geek instincts and licensing clout to resist.

This movie name-checks everything from The Breakfast Club to Chucky, Mechagodzilla to some anime warrior I don't recognize but other viewers murmured about. Some are self-homage; Spielberg's T. rex makes a cameo; distributing Warner Bros.' The Shining inspires the movie's most extended and satisfying throwback.

But if pop references don't click or viewers don't care, Ready Player One has only expertly crafted commotion to offer. While his eye for CGI spectacle is intact, the emotional pull of Spielberg's earlier classics is missing. Only one character summons any investment in his fate, which is signed, sealed and delivered when the movie begins.

James Halliday is the creator of OASIS, a virtual escape from grim future reality for millions worldwide. The Jobs-like genius is played by Oscar winner Mark Rylance, radiating meek intelligence from kind eyes. Halliday's death and avatar survivor led to years of OASIS competition, searching in vain for an Easter Egg that will bequeath his virtual world to the finder.

One hopeful is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) from the wrong side of the Stacks, a community of high-rise, rusty mobile homes. Playing under the avatar Parzival, Wade does it for love of the game and life-changing money. Same goes for uber-gamer Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Wade's buddy Aech (Lena Waithe). Bad guy Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is corporate slime seeking more power with an army of VR soldiers.

In reality Wade looks like Miles Teller's younger, less interesting brother. In OASIS he's a Bowie type in Buckaroo Banzai's suit picking up credits by setting off Zemeckis bombs and such. The advantage of living virtual is not having to be yourself, and none of these competitors are more intriguing in the flesh.

Ready Player One is frontloaded with Spielberg's gift for cohesive calamity, notably in the first leg of Wade's quest. Spielberg hits play on a Grand Theft Auto car chase through New York, OASIS style meaning cultural icons like Adam West's Batmobile and King Kong will get in the way. Then he shows the same route again from a different angle and direction but like a gamer we know what lies ahead.

That's the sort of visceral inclusion Ready Player One needs more often, not just a litany of touchstones and VR effects that the actual process will never duplicate. Fantasy piled high upon reluctance to face reality doesn't work for me in real life or in movies. I'm not Scott Pilgrim, and you can keep that world.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365.

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