Ready Player One (4 stars)

Ready Player One

Spielberg delivers eye-popping entertainment, packed with reference after reference

It was obvious from all the buzz that Steven Spielberg's spectacular virtual reality adventure fantasy – the screen version of Ernest Cline's best-selling novel, scripted by Cline and Zak Penn – would be movie nirvana for fortysomething fanboys. So stuffed is it with pop culture references, most of them from the 80s, you could spend the entire running time shouting out the nostalgic nods that fly past your eyes and ears, from a DeLorean to Depeche Mode.

A key plot point involves the classic video arcade game Adventure. The digitally created cast of thousands in an early, epic race sequence alone includes Mechagodzilla, a Jurassic Park dino, King Kong and some fella in the Batmobile. The Iron Giant and the Chucky doll jostle with characters from Tron, Akira, Monty Python and Duke Nukem, to name a few. There is a set-piece that is an awesome, funny, creepy recreation of The Shining, but possibly mystifying to anyone unfamiliar with that.

So how is it for people who are not of Generation X and those who don't live in their mothers' basements? It's a hectic, two-hours-plus plot-propelled theme park ride. And Spielberg, the maestro of movie magic, may be the one guy who could expertly mash-up motion capture, computer animation, VR and live action, shoot on film and digitally, frequently with head-mounted cameras, and make it relentlessly entertaining, visually captivating fun.

The story is essentially the classic young hero quest, 21st century style. In 2045, in a dystopian world depleted of resources, poor boy Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in a big city wasteland called The Stacks, a community of rusting trailers precariously perched one atop another. He (and almost everyone else, since productive employment seems obsolete) spends his days as his avatar Parzival in a VR world called the OASIS, an escapist realm where your avatar can do anything and be anything you want.

The brilliant, eccentric creator of OASIS, a Steve Jobs meets Willy Wonka figure called James Halliday (Mark Rylance), has died and left a video challenge. Whoever can win three keys in OASIS and find the ultimate Easter Egg hidden there will inherit his fortune and control of OASIS. And we're off: finding clues, solving puzzles and desperately trying to keep ahead of nefarious corporate villain Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and his army of henchpersons. Allied with fellow Gunters (egg hunters), including romantic interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and fierce Aech (Lena Waithe), Wade sparks a rebellion and overcomes obstacles with pluck, perseverance and smarts that give him direction in the real world.

There's no denying that this is an exceptionally eye-popping blockbuster. In its frantic story momentum, though, there isn't much room for emotion – for fleshing out the real world characters, or looking closer at its appalling reality. It's a dazzling escapist fantasy, but would you really want to go there?

General release from Thu 29 Mar.

Ready Player One

  • 4 stars
  • 2018
  • US
  • 2h 20min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Steven Spielberg
  • Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance

Wade (Sheridan) lives in a city wasteland of rusting trailers called The Stacks, spending his days playing (along with nearly everyone else) in a VR world called the OASIS. But then OASIS’s creator dies; who will inherit his fortune? Eye-popping blockbuster, relentlessly entertaining but without much emotion or involvement.