Steven Spielberg has made fantasy films before, but this one is much more concerned with technology and, specifically, the tension between virtual reality and real life.
The human aspect may be the way Spielberg could try out a special effects-laden superhero fight between good and evil. Hard to tell.
It’s another unusual turn from a director who has made many kinds of films, most of them successful.
As is the case with many movies now, it takes its story from a young-adult novel. The plot involves a virtual reality universe called OASIS, which is a popular escape from the earthly dystopia of 2045, when life “is a number everybody is just trying to escape.”
Early on, we meet Wade Watts, an orphan who lives with his aunt and her unpleasant boyfriend in a trailer on a shelf in the Stacks neighborhood of Columbus.
When Wade straps on his VR headset and lands in OASIS, he becomes Parzifal, a streaked-blond avatar who hops into a DeLorean car, closes its wing door and then joins a drag race/battle involving other vehicles — one a motorcycle driven by a cute female avatar named Art3mis — and obstacles including a virtual King Kong. The reason for the race is not clear, but its practical purpose is to get the action going. And of course the movie ends with an epic battle, another stock element in action movies of all genres.
In between, Parzifal and his friends join a competition to find/win three keys left by the sorta-dead OASIS inventor, who promised the winner a really cool Easter egg that will confer hidden powers and control of the VR paradise.
Naturally an opposing team of greedy bad guys wants to take control of OASIS and use it to make money. Naturally the bad guys are led by a CEO-type guy in a business suit; naturally his avatar also wears a business suit.
It’s not a complex story, but it can be hard to follow the plot twists, which involve conflicts on earth and in the OASIS universe. The main characters step back and forth between the two spheres, real and virtual, and their earthly connections make the movie’s theme more humanly resonant and, well, Spielbergian.
The computer-generated imagery, done by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic shop, is excellent throughout. The movie is worth watching for this alone, and particularly in 3-D.
The film is well-stocked with references to 1980s pop culture, a plus for people who care about Hall and Oates, Buckaroo Banzai and historical Atari games.
The plot is more credible than a superhero plot when it comes to characters’ motivations, but not much more.
This is mostly a guy movie. When I saw it, the theater was filled with mostly with single men and bro-friends in pairs; there were also a father and his tween-aged son, and one woman with her boyfriend.
There are lot of movies now that assume a dismal future. Off the top of my head, I came up with these: two Mad Max films, “The Matrix,” the Hunger Games trilogy, “The Road,” “Logan,” “Robocop,” “Blade Runner” and “Blade Runner 49.”
Maybe it’s easier to fight imagined battles than to take up current issues.