Review: Spielberg's nostalgia-loaded 'Ready Player One' serves up popcorn flick fun

Tye Sheridan as Wade

Tye Sheridan as Wade Jaap Buttendijk

Ready Player One is somewhat of an oddity: It’s a movie you can go into with zero background knowledge and yet still get every reference.

That’s because Steven Spielberg’s adaptation—like the 2011 Ernest Cline bestseller on which it’s based—is loaded with pop-culture nods, in-jokes, and Easter eggs that make it feel more like a nostalgic art gallery than its own story. Somehow that’s not a bad thing.

Set 20-some years in the future, Ready Player One offers a vision of the United States that’s at once disturbing and technologically fascinating. Overpopulation, among other socio-economic problems, has forced Americans into dense and derelict living conditions. As escapism, people log onto the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality created by a man named James Halliday (Mark Rylance).

When Halliday died five years prior, an announcement went out that he’d hidden three keys somewhere inside his digital universe. Whoever finds the keys first will win Halliday’s gigantic fortune and gain control of the OASIS.

Enter Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a young gunter (egg hunter) with an encyclopedic knowledge of Halliday. When Wade—as his online alter ego, Parzival—finds the first key, he draws the eye of Innovative Online Industries and its corporate baddy Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). Sorrento wants to win Halliday’s game so he can sell ad space and monetize the OASIS. When Wade refuses to join up, he finds his life changed forever.

Fans of the book be warned: While the overarching structure and characters are there, the movie version of Ready Player One diverges quite a bit from the book. This may irk the diehards, but casual readers and total strangers will likely find the condensed and tweaked storyline to be more conducive to a silver screen telling. And Cline co-wrote the script, so purists can take solace in his involvement being at least some mark of authenticity.

From there, Spielberg and company have a lot of fun. This is a popcorn flick in its truest form: a simple hero’s journey with tons of visual appeal and an inventive foundation. What’s great about the world Cline has created is that for most, it’s readily accessible (though some have argued the exact opposite about the book). You don’t need any fantastic backstory or otherworldly exposition, because this is a logical extension of our reality, our culture. Having some basic knowledge of online gaming will help, but given the wealth of references, there’s something for everybody. A scene centered on Kubrick’s The Shining stands out as the best part of the movie.

If there’s a knock against Ready Player One, it’s that there’s not a lot of narrative depth here. However, it’s fun enough that it doesn’t really matter. There are some statements it tries to make about corporate America and the role of pop culture, but for the most part Spielberg is just aiming for a good time. And the OASIS provides enough novelty to keep us in that mindset.

So while Ready Player One is fairly shallow (and at least 20 minutes too long), it’s not the monotonous slog that other action-adventure blockbusters tend to be. And with its never-ending world of possibility, this looks to be only the beginning.

Ready Player One
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn
Rated: PG-13
Theater: Area theaters, now open