Man with big screen-like goggles like virtual reality headgear with a big glove stretched out on his hand

Wade (Tye Sheridan) takes on a virtual challenge in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One.

The good news: By 2045, Columbus has bucked its opioid addiction. The bad news: It’s replaced it with something far worse.

Our hometown is depicted as the headquarters of a virtual playground called the Oasis in Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s new sci-fi blockbuster. So seductive is this escape from reality that most of the world’s population spends its days donning interactive gear, creating avatars and sending them off on mind-blowing adventures.

The phenomenon has turned Columbus into the planet’s fastest-growing burg, but the growth spurt has been a painful one. Many residents—including our teenage hero, Wade (Tye Sheridan)—live in the “Stacks,” a slum consisting of mobile homes piled on top of each other. Impoverished by the Oasis’s demands on their time and money, they have little hope of ever bettering themselves.

We enter this dystopian future at a time when the mogul behind the Oasis, a man named Halliday (Mark Rylance), has died after launching a contest to choose his heir. Wade, with the help of his avatar, Parzival, is confident he’s up to the challenge.

But the contest proves more difficult than expected—and more dangerous, thanks to the evil Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who leads Oasis’s chief corporate rival and is determined to win so he can monopolize the market. Wade is forced to rely on help from his virtual buddy, Aech (Lena Waithe), and his longtime virtual crush, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), among others. When they eventually meet in real life, the encounter proves you can’t believe everything you “see” online.

Adapted by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline from Cline’s popular novel, Ready Player One is an ingenious creation that for the most part is gloriously realized by Spielberg, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and their team of technical magicians. The motion-capture work is seamless and dazzling.

Adding to the fun, Spielberg indulges his love of all things cinematic by throwing in movie references galore. In an early race, for example, Wade’s Parzival pilots a DeLorean like the one Michael J. Fox drove in Back to the Future (1985) and has to evade perennial big-screen monster King Kong. Other scenes pay homage to Saturday Night Fever (1977), The Shining (1980) and other classics. 

The biggest disappointment is that the film spends less energy on characterization than it does on gee-whiz graphics. The plot suggests that Wade goes through a coming-of-age process while matching wits with his competitors, but actor Sheridan is given little opportunity to show growth. From the start, Wade is just your basic teen hero.

Another problem, especially during the climactic scenes, is a common one in movies loaded with computer-generated action: The battles go by so fast that it’s hard to figure out who is blasting whom, especially since both the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are represented by avatars.

Still, there’s a lot of entertainment to be had during the 140-minute runtime. Let’s just hope the flick proves to be better at paying homage to the past than it is at predicting the future. 

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Ready Player One (PG-13) opened last week at theaters nationwide.

Heading south in more ways than one

Columbus may not be as much of a tourist destination as Key West, but at least it can claim a better movie as its own. Though it falls short of greatness, Ready Player One is a masterpiece compared to The Leisure Seeker.

Directed by Italy’s Paolo Virzi, the film follows elderly couple Ella and John Spencer (Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland) as they climb into their Winnebago and head toward Florida in what we suspect will be their final trip together. We suspect this because Ella is terminally ill and her husband is senile, but mostly because an early scene telegraphs just what she plans to do about their situation.

If the film allowed the couple’s relationship to develop or coalesce in a meaningful way, the journey would be more worthwhile. Instead, it’s a repetitious and often maudlin series of incidents that mostly center on John’s forgetfulness and Ella’s struggle to remain patient despite his forgetfulness. The only epiphany involves a long-ago act of disloyalty, but this arrives so unexpectedly that it has little dramatic impact.

The final weakness is that, while Sutherland is fine, the usually impeccable Mirren struggles with an unconvincing Southern accent. It’s just one more pothole on a road trip that already has too many.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

The Leisure Seeker (rated R) is scheduled to open April 6 nationwide.

Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren as John and Ella Spencer in The Leisure Seeker (Photo by Luca Bigazzi/courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

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