Few books of this decade have divided readers like Ernest Cline’s 2011 hit Ready Player One. A fan letter to ’80s pop culture, set in a world where icons from movies, games and TV became real, it was either a sugar-rush of childhood nostalgia or just a list of old things where a plot should be, depending on your view. But on one thing almost everyone was agreed: if anyone was going to make it into a movie it should be Steven Spielberg, the godfather of ’80s cinema. His loose adaptation extracts all of the book’s most fun elements, but doesn’t have the heart the book needed and that defined Spielberg’s biggest hits.
In the year 2043, the world has become such a crappy place that most people spend their time in a virtual reality, The Oasis, where they can do whatever they want, be it mountain-climbing with Batman or fisticuffs with Freddie Krueger. The inventor of this world, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), has died and left a final game for his players: whoever can solve his fiendish clues and find his hidden Easter Egg will win ownership of The Oasis. The battle is on between a huge corporation, led by rent-a-douche Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), that wants to exploit The Oasis for profit, and the gamers who want to stop them, in particular a young man called Wade (Tye Sheridan). In the real world, Wade is a poor orphan with no prospects. In the CG-realised Oasis he’s Parzival, an Anime-looking warrior with blue hair and perfect digital bone structure, and a big crush on a fellow gamer called Art3mis (Olivia Cooke).
The straightforward ‘stop the business baddy’ plot is just there to facilitate a romp through a fantasy world in which all kinds of pop-culture characters intermingle. On that front, Spielberg really delivers, at least for viewers who remember the ’80s. There are very few references from the 21st century. Spielberg is a master of action set-pieces and there’s nerdy glee in watching a car chase that involves the Back to the Future Delorean racing Akira’s motorcycle while both try to avoid a T-Rex and a very stompy King Kong. The same is true watching Halo’s Masterchief in battle with The Iron Giant. It’s silly and great fun. The one odd element of the ’80s nostalgia is that because Spielberg is directing, and far too modest to celebrate himself, this is a world where no Spielberg movies exist. The man who wrote the book on ’80s cinema has cut himself out of it.
That enjoyment, though, is thin. After you’ve spotted a few favourites there’s not much else to involve you. The characters are sketches and while the adaptation is loose, it’s kept too much of the book’s eye-rolling, cheat-code plotting, where Parzival will be gifted magical gizmos that can bust him out of any dangerous situation without a need for good writing. And some of the bleurgh moments remain, like Wade finding the real-life Ar3mis attractive ‘despite’ her facial birthmark. Its attitudes can be as retro as its setting.
It’s a film to watch and enjoy once, but probably not to return to again and again, like Spielberg’s best. It’s fixated on easter eggs and it’s like an easter egg itself: shiny and pretty, inducing a brief sugar high, but ultimately hollow.