Tye Sheridan in Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg’s empty sci-fi epic Ready Player One takes place in a 2045 so dystopian that people spend all their time under headsets, inhabiting a virtual reality known as OASIS. The hero, 18-year-old Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), lives in Columbus, Ohio, in a slum made of stacked-up trailers, so you can’t blame him for focusing on his virtual life, where he commands an avatar named Parzival and tries to win an Easter egg hunt embedded in OASIS by its mysterious creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), that will grant the winner half a trillion dollars and full ownership of the invented world. Ready Player One is a gamer’s wet dream, its characters engaging in various contests that further the plot, and OASIS is jammed to the gills with pop-culture references. King Kong, Mechagodzilla, R2-D2, the Joker, and Chucky from the Child’s Play movies all put in appearances, and among the autos tearing around are the classic 1960s Batmobile, Speed Racer’s Mach 5, and the souped-up DeLorean from Back to the Future.

The source novel, by Ernest Cline, contains several references to Spielberg’s movies, most of which the director cut. “I’m just going to leave myself out of it,” he told Entertainment Weekly. Yet what is the movie if not his autobiography? Like Halliday, Spielberg has created a fantastic universe where we all hide from the real universe. He’s never been particularly good with the here and now: when his movies deal with reality, they’re usually set in the past (Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, The Post); when they’re set in the present, they’re usually fantasy (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds). The most topical film he’s ever made—The Terminal (2004), about an eastern-European immigrant camping out in New York’s JFK Airport—was among his least successful both critically and commercially.

Halliday may be Spielberg’s avatar, but the director sees him as more of a Steve Jobs figure, and he’s cast Rylance, his favorite new actor (Bridge of Spies, The BFG), to play the software creator. Wearing horn-rimmed glasses, a shaggy wig, and a Space Invaders T-shirt, Halliday looks like Garth, Dana Carvey’s character from Wayne’s World, and as OASIS demonstrates, he’s spent just as much time in front of the TV. There’s one gem of a sequence in which the contestants must complete a route through the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), though most of the set pieces unfold on an epic scale, such as the T. rex attack on an urban metropolis that winks to Spielberg’s own dinosaur franchise. Amid this special-effects maelstrom, Wade Watts never emerges as a character, and the taciturn Sheridan is in constant danger of being out-acted by his own avatar. Who can connect with a hero when he’s just watching the story? I thought that was my job.  v