Chances are viewers who've seen the trailers for Ready Player One will have already made up their minds about the movie. Either they think it's a big, fuzzy ball of warm nostalgia from blockbuster king Steven Spielberg – or a garish slice of shameless fan pandering and nostalgia bait. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, for while the relentless tornado of easter eggs and CGI can be grating, there's a surprisingly sweet core beneath all the callbacks.
Ready Player One is based on the 2011 book by Ernest Cline, and is set in an overcrowded, dystopian future where most of the population escapes into the OASIS, a massive virtual reality world allowing players to do whatever they please.
The deceased creator of this VR haven (Mark Rylance) planted three easter eggs inside that will grant the winner a vast fortune and control of the game, so when mega-nerd teenager Wade (Tye Sheridan) unlocks the first key, he becomes the target of a sinister corporation who want to control the OASIS for themselves.
Ready Player One frontloads itself with nostalgia and easter eggs, introducing viewers to a digital world crammed with references that are both extremely obvious (the DeLorean from Back To The Future, King Kong himself) to total deep cuts (Battletoads, the Lawgiver handgun from Stallone‘s Judge Dredd).
For some this will be a nerdy delight, while others will be viciously repelled. When the plot kicks in and characters are given time to develop, however, Spielberg eases the throttle on the callbacks. In fact, when the story takes a break from the information overload of the OASIS and steps into the real world, it's like a breath of fresh air.
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The movie is the classic hero's journey dipped in pop culture references, and it would have been easy for it to fall over into nothing but cynical references. While it threatens to more than once, thanks to Spielberg's deft touch it never completely tips over, and he brings a genuine warmth to it. Ready Player One is Spielberg's first big blockbuster in a long time, and while it's a long way from his best, it shows he still has the touch.
He particularly seems to be having fun in an extended sequence around the midway point, where he gets to revisit a classic movie from one of his own favorite filmmakers…
Ready Player One is a total confection, of course. It pays lip service on the notion of people needing to live in the real world and let go of their youth – while absolutely wallowing in shameless nostalgia.
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Since nearly all the violence takes place in a digital world there's little in the way of life or death stakes, the supporting players are thinly sketched and for a setting that supposedly allows players to use their imaginations, there's a disappointing lack of invention outside of having pop culture icons punch each other.
That said, Spielberg still knows his way around a setpiece and how to get audiences invested, so if you surrender to Ready Player One‘s charms – and can withstand a tsunami of references – it's not a bad night at the movies. Fair warning, however; if you despise the book or general concept, it's probably best to skip it.
Ready Player One is released on the 28th March, 2018.