If you’ve spent the last fifty years in a cultural vacuum, Ready Player One will do next to nothing for you. Coming from the king of nostalgia himself, Steven Spielberg, this is pop culture at its most carbonated. It’s way too much but a whole lot of fun.
Imagine a world where real life is so utterly unbearable that people choose to spend all their time in a virtual universe instead. This is the set up for Ready Player One, the film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s compelling novel. Although the action takes place in 2045 – and is visually in the debt of Blade Runner and Spielberg’s own Minority Report – the premise feels strangely plausible for a date much closer in our own future.
X-Men: Apocalypse’s Tye Sheridan plays every-geek orphan Wade Watts, who lives in a grim urban wasteland known ‘the stacks’ with his Aunt (Susan Lynch) and her bully of a partner (Ralph Ineson). As Harry Potter to Hogwarts, Matilda to the library and Charlie Bucket to chocolate, Wade’s escape lies in an abandoned van in a scrap heap of cars where he can don haptic gloves and a VR headset and enter the Oasis. Created by eccentric outsider James Halliday (Mark Rylance – terrific), the ‘Oasis’ is the ultimate video game experience; a utopia of possibilities. ‘People came to the Oasis for what you could do,’ enthuses Wade, ‘they stayed for what you can be.’ Here, you can waste hours on a system devoted to Minecraft, waste money at planet-sized casino and lay waste to millions in brutally Player v Player combat.
Alternatively, you can join the quest to find Halliday’s Easter Egg: a prize hidden within the game, at the end of three trials and a set of clues, that grants the winner a trillion dollar fortune and control of the Oasis itself. At the end of an exposition-dumping opening third, you’ll be amazed to learn that this is an abridged adaptation of the book. Wade quickly finds himself at the forefront of Halliday’s quest – alongside girl-next-door Art3mis and best-mate Aech – but hot on his heels is megalomaniac Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), CEO of a company trying to commercially dominate the Oasis.
Having authored the book, Cline has co-written the Spielberg film with Zak Penn to be a little – not much – less niche and a touch more dynamic. The first task here is to win a drag-race, rather than beat the Dungeons and Dragons character Acererak at a game of Joust and a WarGames sequence becomes a tribute to The Shining. A word of warning for the uninitiated: some of the shortcuts work well, others render the dots hard to join. Amid the sugary chaos, a lack of coherence and continuity is – ironically, given geek culture – a weakness here.
And yet, flippant and lightweight that Ready Player One absolutely is, Spielberg is undoubtedly having fun here and it’s hard not to share his enthusiasm. A post-Guardians of the Galaxy retro score by Back to the Future legend Alan Silvestri plays like a tribute to vintage John Williams, complemented by the likes of Van Halen, A-ha and Tears for Fears. Likewise, the hundreds of cultural references here will surely only be fully appreciated with repeat viewings. This time, you’ll probably just wait for the DVD though.