Steven Spielberg’s newest film is a syphon of popular culture. A vortex that grabs references from the 80s, 90s and now as if it were a radio DJ attempting to fill two and a half hours with the greatest playlist of all time. If any creator is apt to take on the challenge of adapting Ernest Cline’s referential novel who better than the man who partly inspired the author’s childhood? From Back to the Future to King Kong and many highlights in between, the films amalgamation is a sight to behold, bursting at the seams with callbacks and shoutouts to as many (legally obtained) references as possible that, at times, fails to sustain its long runtime with meaningful substance.
The best possible way to approach this film is as giddy spectacle. As with Spielberg’s recent Oscar nominated The Post, he once again holds nothing back when it comes to the pure cinematic craft of camera movement that is simply astounding. It is here where the source material and adaptation by Zak Penn and Cline himself never truly raises itself to the level of the directors prowess. The fairly paper-thin characters are given worth dependent on their prowess at film trivia and survival horror games without any sense of progression from within.
This dystopian tale follows Wade Watts as he and a growing assortment of in game avatars attempt to find three hidden keys inside the Oasis, a living video game world created by the late James Halliday. Find all of the keys and Halliday’s unimaginable wealth and the rights to the Oasis itself are yours. Tye Sheridan as Watts seems to have fun in the role but unfortunately comes across as bland due in part to his limited world reach outside of the Oasis and his brief interaction with what remains of his family. Thankfully Mark Rylance as Halliday is fairly brilliant in his Brian May looking eccentricity and the on-fire Olivia Cooke carries the breezy feeling of the film with heart and an infectious smile, even if the writer’s attempts at positive gender associations gets lost in the spectacle.
The 140 minute runtime does make itself felt at points in the film, but these hiccups can be somewhat forgiven by the sheer unadulterated exuberance to be had by the film’s set pieces. From a 100 character plus race set in New York City, that features a late game entrance from King Kong, to a final battle that somehow incorporates BattleToads, The Iron Giant and crazy long takes, it’s hard not to giggle with excitement. The standout by far is the middle sequence involving a certain haunted manor that will no doubt be lamented for how blasphemous and undeniably amazing it is.
While it is unfortunate that the problems of the book carry over into the film, the propulsion felt from the filmmaking is enough to sit back and enjoy watching these references collide in what will probably be the last time we see Spielberg attempt something this batshit insane.