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'Ready Player One' Is Full Of '80s Nostalgia And 'Easter Eggs'


The young adult bestseller Ready Player One is about the search for an Easter egg - not the kind that kids will search for this weekend, Easter egg in the sense of an unexpected bonus feature, the kind found in video games. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who's no stranger to giving audiences unexpected bonuses, has brought the novel to the screen. Critic Bob Mondello says, let the hunt begin.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The world is a pretty unpleasant place in 2045 - fossil fuels depleted, population exploded, climate change way past the point of no return. There have been corn syrup droughts, bandwidth riots. Cities are surrounded by trailer parks on steroids, double-wides stacked 20 stories high. And in one of them, we find our hero, Wade Watts.


TYE SHERIDAN: (As Wade) My dad picked that name because it sounded like a superhero's alter ego, like Peter Parker or Bruce Banner. But he died when I was a kid - my mom, too. And I ended up here.

MONDELLO: Here is the stacks outside Columbus, Ohio, where Wade spends most of his time as an avatar in computer simulations, wearing headphones, goggles and gloves, interacting with other people's avatars.


SHERIDAN: (As Wade) They called our generation the missing millions - missing not because we went anywhere. There's nowhere left to go, nowhere except the OASIS.

MONDELLO: The OASIS is the brainchild of a socially awkward guy named Halliday - a virtual reality that's both interactive and immersive with whole worlds for warriors, for pole dancers, for folks who would drive fast cars if there were any gas left to power them. The OASIS made Halliday rich, and it's made the real world bearable for the billions who need escape. And wouldn't you know? He's figured out a way to keep them intrigued even after he's gone.


MARK RYLANCE: (As Halliday) Hello. If you're watching this, I'm dead. I created a hidden object, an Easter egg. The first person to find the egg will inherit half a trillion dollars and total control of the OASIS itself.

MONDELLO: A Willy Wonka prize worth playing for if you're a gamer and a movie conceit worth playing with if you're Steven Spielberg. Ernest Cline's novel gave Halliday a consuming nostalgia for the 1980s, and who better to bring that to the screen? The filmmaker crams every corner of Wade's cyberscapes with Deloreans, Batmobiles, aliens, King Kong, The Iron Giant. There's Prince and Van Halen on the soundtrack and even a sequence where Spielberg lets loose his inner Kubrick. Wade, who calls himself Parzival in the OASIS, teams up with his best buddy, Aech...


LENA WAITHE: (As Aech) What up, Z?

MONDELLO: ...And a girl who calls herself Art3mis and becomes very protective.


OLIVIA COOKE: (As Art3mis) You don't tell anyone who you are. You can't use your real name.

MONDELLO: And since they need an opponent, there's a corporate creep who's hired a geek army trying to gain control of the OASIS so he can monetize it.


BEN MENDELSOHN: (As Sorrento) Who is this Parzival, and how the hell is he winning?

MONDELLO: The plot's not going to tax anyone over the age of 12, but Spielberg crams the screen with visuals eye-popping enough to make viewers not care - grimy and dystopian for the real world, bright and cyber-sparkly for an OASIS that's just unreal enough to ring a little hollow. Presumably that's the point. With a creator who's emotionally stunted, Halliday wanted a place, remember, where he could avoid the real world.

The OASIS is a fun playground but problematic when a whole society tries to live there. You could say the same thing about nostalgia, whether it's the kind of '80s name-checking that Spielberg and Cline are doing in "Ready Player One" or the kind that politicians and advertisers do when they encourage their audiences to remember the good ole days - comforting if you don't think too hard and, as corporations and film studios well know, monetizable. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAN HALEN SONG, "JUMP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.