Steven Spielberg’s hectic sci-fi action-adventure, Ready Player One, is set half in the real world and half in virtual reality, so it’s not surprising that two of its characters should discuss the differences between those competing realms. What’s striking is that the characters should have their discussion in the middle of a furious gun battle in a zero-gravity disco – and yet you can somehow follow both their arguments and the course of the shoot-out.

Spielberg isn’t just making this territory his own, but demonstrating that it was his all along

It’s dazzling stuff. Recently, a generation of directors has been paying homage to Spielberg’s popcorn films (in Super 8, Jurassic World, and Stranger Things, for example), but with Ready Player One he proves with stunning aplomb that no one does Spielberg quite like Spielberg. No one has more empathy with pasty American kids from broken homes. No one packs scenes with so much information, or elaborate action set pieces with so much energy, while ensuring that you always know what’s going on and why.

And Spielberg isn’t just competing with his imitators and his 1980s self. He is blasting his way into the 21st Century. As his spectacular film travels back and forth between a dingy Orwellian dystopia and a computer-generated dream world, he stampedes across territory occupied by Terry Gilliam, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan and the Wachowskis, not to mention the directors of The Lego Movie. He isn’t just making this territory his own, but demonstrating that it was his all along.

Adapted from the best-selling novel by Ernest Cline, and scripted by Cline and Zak Penn, Ready Player One is set in the year 2045. Its orphaned hero, Wade (Tye Sheridan), lives in a grey Ohio ghetto called The Stacks, where higgledy-piggledy skyscrapers are made of mobile homes piled on top of each other and held together with scaffolding. This opening setting would be enough to occupy most films, but no sooner have we glimpsed Wade’s vertiginous home than he slips on his VR gloves and helmet and flits across to the OASIS, an online role-playing game.

Most of the population passes most of its time in this game, it seems. The America of 2045 is so rundown that it makes sense to cross over to an infinite digital wonderland where you can live in every film you’ve ever seen. On a first viewing, I spotted King Kong, the chest-burster from Alien, the DeLorean from Back to the Future, the Tardis from Doctor Who, the Tyrannosaurus from Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park, and about 50 other pop-culture icons. But the film invites you to rewatch it repeatedly, pausing regularly, until you’ve ticked off all the references. Each crowded frame is like a ‘Where’s Wally?’ spread for Comic-Con regulars. 

Naturally, once people are in the OASIS, they tend to choose avatars who are slimmer, taller and generally less human than they are. Wade becomes a white-and-blue-skinned alien boy-band dreamboat named Parzival, and his online friends include a punky manga babe, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), and a hulking cyborg, Aech (Lena Waithe), neither of whom he has ever met in reality. They all love the virtual thrill of climbing Mount Everest, visiting casino space stations, machine-gunning opponents, and racing around Manhattan in their souped-up cars (hence the DeLorean), but they have a specific mission to keep them occupied, too.

The OASIS, we learn, was designed by a fragile genius, James Halliday (Spielberg’s late-period muse, Mark Rylance), and his ousted business partner, Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg, a particularly apt casting choice, given that the film amps up the nerd-tastic sensory bombardment which he and Edgar Wright developed in their sitcom, Spaced). Halliday is now dead, but he has left an ‘Easter egg’ behind in the OASIS: anyone who can complete three challenges within the game will be handed sole executive control of his trillion-dollar firm. Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the rat-like boss of a rival tech company, devotes endless resources to figuring out Halliday’s riddles, aided and abetted by an amusingly intimidating but whiny sidekick called i-R0k (TJ Miller) – literally, an online troll. But the heartfelt geekery of Wade / Parzival and his friends gives them the edge. Regardless of what their parents may have told them, spending their childhoods in front of a screen was actually sound preparation for later life.

If pop culture is eating itself, this is the feast to end all feasts

What this convoluted but comprehensible premise means is that, for most of Ready Player One, we are watching Wade playing a video game: at one key stage, we’re watching Wade play a video game within a video game. But Spielberg and his team convince us to care about what’s happening, both in the OASIS and out of it. Even when Wade is essentially a CGI cartoon character, hurtling around an artificial planet at helter-skelter speed, the film is making piquant points about corporate advertising, the internet, and the human urge to appear bigger and better than we are: Sorrento’s avatar looks suspiciously like Superman. Some viewers will still be turned off by a narrative which separates itself from reality for so much of the running time. But it’s horribly easy to believe that one day we’ll all be plugged into a game like the OASIS – and a lot sooner than 2045.

Having said that, Ready Player One did leave me feeling slightly sorry for today’s pre-teen and teenage cinema-goers, because they so rarely get to see a new fantasy film which doesn’t nod and wink to older ones. Back in the past, you didn’t need to pass an exam to enjoy Back to the Future, whereas the current Star Wars and Marvel movies assume an encyclopedic knowledge of all sorts of films, television series, games, books and comics. But I think that Spielberg is aware of what a headache these nostalgia-fests can be. Despite its name, the OASIS is cluttered and exhausting rather than peaceful and calm.

Besides if any film should be allowed to let its geek flag fly, it’s Ready Player One, which clearly aims to be the ultimate celebration of the fanboy and fangirl mindset. If pop culture is eating itself, this is the feast to end all feasts. You could also argue that Spielberg is the godfather of this kind of coach-potato cross-referencing. I can still remember going to see ET The Extra-Terrestrial when it came out, and being startled when ET spotted someone dressed up as Yoda for Hallowe’en. How could one science-fiction blockbuster joke about another, completely different science-fiction blockbuster? My young mind was blown. Thirty-five years on, Spielberg has blown my not-so-young mind again.

★★★★★ 

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