If ever there was a director to tackle Ready Player One, Ernest Cline's inspiringly geeky sci-fi tome, then Steven Spielberg would surely sit near gthe top of any and all lists. The heart of Cline's 2011 paean to the granular detail of eighties pop culture is to be found in the adventure genre that Spielberg, thanks to his endeavours on E.T., Indiana Jones and beyond, played so seminal a role in forming.
As Cline granted protagonists solace and comfort in the warmth of that particular strain of Americana, so, then, is Spielberg, godfather of it all, the filmmaker uniquely placed to bend those familiar tropes to his will. That said, Ready Player One's horizons extend far beyond paying respect to Spielberg's back catalogue.
It is no small task. The fabric of Cline's vision is at once dystopian and retrospective, the not entirely implausible nightmare reality of his story's setting offset by the throwback stylings of the OASIS, the online utopia into which the denizens of this tale retreat for relief from everyday life.
The year is 2045. In Columbus, Ohio, teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) wiles away his dreary days deep inside the OASIS, a sprawling, omnipresent virtual Shangri-La that provides its adherents (basically everyone alive) – through their digital selves – with entertainment, schooling, synthetic connections and, crucially, the playing field for humanity's fiercest obsession: the hunt for a riddle-shrouded Easter egg buried within the platform by its late founder, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). A vast fortune and control of the system await the first person to discover the egg. Thus, as the planet succumbs to famine and deprivation, the quest to conquer a series of three challenges, and locate this invaluable prize, is a desperate one. It's Wade's avatar, Parzival, that makes the first breakthrough, however.
Spielberg's take is invigorating, a stripped-down-and-rebuilt version of the plot that reaches the book's endpoint via a significantly different route. While it loses some of Cline's nerdy charm in translation (the author is credited as a screenwriter), this is, nonetheless, a superior and often breathtaking epic that should dazzle long after the credits roll.
From a technical perspective, Ready Player One soars. If, due to the constraints of a running time, the vastness of the OASIS seems ever so slightly stunted, that which appears on screen is still nothing short of astounding. The film's spirit lives within this world, just as its characters do.
From the demented opening death rally starring any number of recognisable jalopies – one of many strands to depart from the literary source – to the grand, geeked-out final boss battle, this is not a film lacking spectacle. The vistas of the OASIS are gloriously rendered, be they serene and bucolic futurescapes, apocalyptic death matches, or the early Manhattan-themed racetrack, whose sleek skylines collapse, extend and shift as traps and obstacles (including King Kong) chew up the careening competitors. A nightclub scene in the middle third is lit in deep plum shades, its dance floor an abyss into which partygoers plunge, floating and swirling in time with a host of classic tunes.
Given its pedigree, this is a picture always likely to live or die depending on how much it can draw from the cultural hallmarks of geekdom. Spielberg has spared no effort in trawling the zeitgiest for figures and references with which to populate the movie (interestingly none of his own creations feature in any meaningful way).
There are almost too many to list, but particular reverence is reserved for Robert Zemeckis. One cannot help sensing the director's pride in his erstwhile protégé. It's there in the particular prominence afforded to Back to Future, as the iconic DeLorean tears through the frozen wastes of the unhinged finale and a graceful retuning of the iconic score occasionally floats over the action like a pleasant, friendly spectre. A magical version of Ernő Rubik's eponymous cube even gets a rebrand in favour of Zemeckis.
There is much more besides, of course. An extended tribute to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining will amuse and amaze in equal measures.
If there is an obvious criticism it can be directed towards the band of central players. Sheridan, so impressive in 2012's Mud, is a fine actor but he borders on bland here, lacking obvious charisma and imbuing his Parzival with an earnestness that is neither interesting nor especially entertaining. As fellow protagonist Art3mis, Bates Motel's Olivia Cooke brings more spunk to bear, though she is ill served by an underwhelming resistance-to-the-corporate-overlords arc that never feels fully developed. Their romance smells rushed.
The real-world setting, too, fails to impress, even if it is deliberately painted as the grey dregs of humanity's existence. Fortunately, Ready Player One knows the source of its strength and allows room for a coterie of colourful veterans to garland the narrative.
Notable among these is Ben Mendelsohn's "dickweed" fascist-cum-oligarch Nolan Sorrento, the head of the dastardly IOI conglomerate set on converting the OASIS into a hellish, ad-soaked profit factory. Sorrento's avatar may lack the verve of his rivals but it ripples with Mendelsohn's signature smirk, shifty menace and icy stare. T.J. Miller is also outstanding as a terrifyingly constructed bounty hunter whose hilarious dialogue is a true joy.
And then there is Rylance. A lesser talent might have upped the crazy when it came to pulling off a savant-like figure with a fewer people skills than Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs combined. In Rylands hands, however, Halliday is no freak. As vulnerable as it is restrained, this depiction is another reminder of the Oscar winner's hypnotic power. Halliday's depth and humour is only ever hinted at, shielded by a watchful diffidence that is more defence mechanism than aloof disregard for the mortals around him.
The exquisite brilliance of Rylance's portrayal in the final few minutes will uplift even the grimmest souls and remind us all of why Spielberg, whose work has never once wanted for heart, is the master of all he surveys.