Ready Player One presents an escapist humanity – "reality is a bummer," Tye Sheridan's Wade Watts quips during the film's opening sequence – and so the overwhelming majority of the population has become addicted to a wildly popular and seemingly limitless virtual reality simulator named the OASIS. Within the vast borders of this digital domain, Watts lives a second life in the form of "Parzival", one among many players determined to unearth and decode a set of cryptic secrets left behind by the game's deceased creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). What follows is a madcap adventure through a wide-ranging virtual expanse as Wade, the enigmatic and free-wheeling 'Art3mis' (Olivia Cooke), and their band of companions race to find a trio of keys that lead to Halliway's final secret, and the inheritance of the OASIS at large, all while corporate cronies seek to realise their own ends.
When news arose that Ernest's Cline's somewhat clunky and reference-laden novel Ready Player One was receiving an adaptation for the silver screen, I immediately thought that the worst would ensue. The book, like the film, is deeply rooted in 80s and 90s pop culture and constantly makes references to it, but the source material is so reliant on and in-your-face about these references that valuable page space is consumed by the author flaunting his knowledge of old bands and obscure Japanese anime. That Cline himself had a hand in the writing of this film only exacerbated my looming sense of apprehension – and seeing the film for myself makes me all the more pleased that the writing in the final product actually turned out passable, perhaps thanks to Zak Penn's contributions, and that Steven Spielberg clinched the director's chair.
Visually, the film is marvelous, especially when viewed in IMAX quality. The VR landscapes are crisp, richly detailed and often varied in their presentation, with the CG mostly holding up, aside from the main characters' faces occasionally coming across as remarkably uncanny and a handful of instances where the effects look surprisingly slapdash. At times, it can become overwhelming, especially in a handful of the earlier segments when the action is at its most chaotic. While it does transform into a veritable blitzkrieg of light and sound in these cases, however, the film knows when to dial itself back, giving the story a smattering of relatively calmer moments in and out of virtual reality. The romp through this boundless virtual realm is replete with appearances from fictional characters and cultural icons across a whole host of mediums, from Jurassic Park's own 'Rexy' to Halo's SPARTAN supersoldiers and Overwatch's Tracer and Reaper to a slew of Batman-related characters and items, running the gamut all the way to Hello Kitty, with particularly striking appearances from the much-publicised Iron Giant and – stunningly enough, bridging a gap that many anime enthusiasts believed could never be crossed – the RX-78-2 Gundam from the 1979/1980 anime Mobile Suit Gundam. The poster makes its presence clear – but as for the juicy context of the scenes it's used in...well, my lips are sealed, but much heavy metal is involved.
For an ardent fan of pop culture both recent and decades past, it's a virtual cinematic Where's Waldo, and there will doubtlessly be those who will examine every frame of this film to identify as many properties and characters as they possibly can. It's a smorgasbord of visual delight for those with strong ties to that sort of thing, but as far as the actual narrative is concerned, though, it's considerably plainer. It is far from offensively dull, and Spielberg is evidently relishing in bringing the setting to life as much as possible, but the plot is relatively standard adventure fare, the beats predictable, and the outcome clear after a point. The writing is fine – even bypassing some of the much more cumbersome blocks of text and odd moments from the original novel – but while that is certainly beneficial there's little that stands out and the aesops the script has on subjects such as greed, charity, socialisation and social media by extension are rather telegraphed or somewhat clunkily delivered. Additionally, the passable nature of the final script, though free of Cline's incessant barrage of references and stilted prose, amplifies the sense of a drag in the plot that is felt through the third act, an acute sense of ending fatigue, as it were. On a lesser note, some of the in-universe lingo that becomes frequently mentioned throughout the film's running time is also exceedingly peculiar, even within the film's sci-fi framework; trying to pass off the odd portmanteaux of 'Gunters' as something serious will never not be amusing.
For the cast, the performances on display, while not necessarily relentlessly gripping, are generally more than sufficient. Olivia Cooke solidly plays a character that ably juggles action girl, nerd and mysterious loner in Art3mis, Ben Mendehlson releases his restraint in playing gleefully scummy corporate executive Nolan Sorrento. The rest of the supporting cast, though mostly taking a backseat in focus, is well-selected; Lena Waithe and Phillip Zhao provide some genuinely comedic zingers, and even though two-fifths of the so-called 'High Five' do not have much to say, one still gets the impression that they're a believable crew. Even Rylance puts in a good turn as Halliway, placing a marked emphasis on scruffy hair, sizeable glasses, awkward speech and a fondness for Space Invaders t-shirts. Others suffer, however; Simon Pegg is underutilised, though this partially intentional, and T.J. Miller generally feels like he's phoning it in yet again as henchman i-R0k, a character who looks far more striking than he actually is. In ways, too, Sheridan actually suffers the most. Wade is regrettably rather lacking in substance, and this is reflected through Sheridan's performance. It's not poor, but barring a couple of standout moments towards the film's conclusion he never really strives to rise above. Though his performance in Mud was lauded, Sheridan is still young and has yet to truly cut his teeth on big-budget project flanked by big names, and it shows.
But for its narrative and acting shortcomings, it was nevertheless genuinely surprised. I went into this without a single positive expectation, being mindful of the novel from which this film was sourced, and Spielberg's filmic expertise along with solid technical prowess and a firm overall casting selection elevated this to a level I did not think it would reach. It may be too gleefully referential for some, but Ready Player One is an adaptation that actually manages to fight and secure a good place for itself. If you want a good old-fashioned fetch quest brimming with nostalgia, backed by kicking 80s beats and appealing to the giddy child within all of us with the aid of a master's touch, this may well be a film that surprises you as much as it did me.