Part of this movie, I simply couldn’t stand. Spielberg disappears us in to a virtual world for car races through New York pursued by King Kong. We’re trying to reach the end of the race track in order to get a key from a virtual Mark Rylance. I wanted it to be game over.
Yet to explain the layers of plot and narrative going on here would be impossible and Spielberg deserves great credit (the sort of credit due to the ‘greatest storyteller of our times’, as per his trademark) for making some sense of it. My take on it:
Tye Sheridan is Parzifal trying to crack the impossible clues left by gaming genius James Halliday (Rylance in a Space Invader T-shirt and Wayne’s World haircut). He’s joined by other young avatars in the virtual world while in the real world (which is, officially, “a bummer”), a nasty corporation led by Ben Mendelssohn is pooling all its resources to crack the Halliday clues and inherit the keys to the virtual universe called The Oasis.
Thematically, it’s like the band of kids in ET taking on the scientists with their BMX bikes. But Spielberg throws a lot of wizardry at it and at times its too much for my old eyes. Too much, yet artistically dull. There’s a lot of retro referencing – including an entire sequence based on the The Shining – and stuff about 80s pop videos and Atari games.
There are great moments, when the reality kicks in and it feels like real, old school Spielberg. But there are huge sequences which feel inert, like something out of a Transformers movie. I think Spielberg’s going for a cultural reappraisal of pop culture, overseeing its elevation to high art. And although some of his most popular work definitely belongs in that canon, I’m not sure this film will be part of that bedrock in the future. It may be about gaming, but doesn’t feel like a game changer.