⭐ ⭐ / ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Steven Shpielberg’s latest megasmash is Ready Player One, based on the neopunk scifi opera of the same name by Lib Rettist. It tells the story of Mack, played by Tye Hernias, and his attempts to literally win the heart of Daria, played by Olivia Cookie, by entering an online spelling bee/endurance test in the form of an advanced virtual reality video game where the punishment you give (and take) manifests itself in the real world donor organ bank.

Neural link inputs on the digital side connect to optic, aural and spinal implants to make the game fully engrossing and all too consequential: the game, “Best World,” has been redesigned following several reports of receding gumlines and itchy hair worldwide in parts of Asia. It is now EDA approved to alter your genetic material, letting you literally become your virtual character.

As a Drook, a car sized three legged humanoid made of peanut butter, Mack’s game self (“Slabby”) is all business. Too bad his human self is boringly two legged and mere flesh and blood. Played by Hernias (Sunrise), Mack reminds me of those old Colorform toys where you could stick a piece of vinyl with the black outline of a character or object anywhere and it would stay put until you peeled it off. It was always sort of clumsily drawn and cut out as if by a child. Realistic detail or engaging motion was beyond the capability of a flat piece of vinyl. He’s kind of like that. Shpielberg just puts him where he wants. At least this Colorform can move and talk and is highly detailed in appearance.

“Slabby” has to complete three tasks before he can be eaten by the Ape Queen and eventually regurgitated to her avian offspring. Task one is relatively simple in that it’s something Tye does every day as a human. But as a peanut butter Drook brushing his teeth is quite difficult, seeing as he doesn’t have any teeth or even fingers to hold a toothbrush. So Mack gets creative, altering his dna to make his physical form able to conform to his wishes. Obviously this causes concern among his family and friends, but that doesn’t stop Mack ’cause, darn it, he’s in love.

Tasks two and three are a bit more involved, and we see where Shpielberg fails and succeeds with crystal clarity. The film is firing on all but one cylinder, but that one missing cylinder is a doozy. The action is breathtaking, the mechanics are seamless, the players “game.” But there’s nothing to make us care about any of it.

Despite PC casting, the ethnically diverse characters are generically, uniformly bland, as if to somehow not offend nor interest anyone. Everyone is neutered and toothless, leaving the viewer with only an audio/visual experience instead of an emotionally engaging one. Even the romance between Mack and Daria, the ostensible “heart” of the movie, is colorless and by the numbers; they’re a couple because the script says so, not because we’ve shared one iota of their chemistry or history.

Admittedly, when the film visits the virtual world it is fascinating and richly entertaining with dazzling visuals and a dizzying sense of depth and scale. But no matter how colorful and tightly edited the scenes in the normal world, they are where the film goes to die. Their focus group approved banality is game over for this player, as slow moving as if they’re made of peanut butter as well, with all the fun of a trip to the dentist.

At first understandably reluctant to enter this technological merging of flesh and digital, young Mack soon takes to his new digs as director Shpielberg (Days Of Wine And Roses) presents his lushly attractive alternate reality replete with a full spectrum of animated characters. Utilizing a melting pot approach with traditional hand drawn cells, stop motion puppets, lifesize props and all cgi sequences, the film looks and sounds like the world’s best video game.

It also likes to take jabs at political figures, commenting on the Rump administration’s foreign labor policy with forced asides and fourth-wall-breaking musical numbers (the game loves it when you sing), but the film takes itself too seriously even then, resulting in more head scratching than nodding. It’s a bit like going to foreign performance art or a roast and not getting any of the jokes.

Go for the popcorn and soda but stay for the visuals.