In the year 2045 orphaned teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is among millions of impoverished slum-dwellers who escape their harsh lives by plugging into an immersive virtual universe called the OASIS. Created by the late eccentric genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the OASIS is a realm of limitless possibilities, inspired by his obsession with Eighties and Nineties pop culture. An imaginary world where gamers like Wade, as his retro-cool hero avatar Parzival, and his mysterious rival/crush Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) can be anyone, go anywhere, do anything in a reality-bending treasure hunt. Whoever finds the three keys unlocking Halliday's fabled treasure shall inherit a trillion dollars along with total control over the OASIS. When Parzival/Wade unearths a vital clue he unwittingly makes himself a target for Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), a ruthless, megalomaniacal tycoon with an army of gamers determined to snag Halliday's treasure and enslave the virtual world. Only Parzival and his friends can stop them. If they can survive.
Perhaps the geekiest story ever told, Ernest Cline's best-selling novel was tailor made for Steven Spielberg. Not least because Spielberg personally shaped a good two-thirds of the Eighties/Nineties pop cultural artifacts with which Ready Player One is so profoundly obsessed. Yet Cline's novel is more than simply a literary 'Where's Waldo?' for nostalgia addicts. Steven Spielberg's rip-roaring adaptation grasps that. For all its popcorn thrills, whiz-bang set-pieces and fan-boy (and girl) references galore, the story of Ready Player One is less about Eighties nostalgia than what geek culture means to the people that form friendships and communities around its light. As with almost every property these days that enters the cultural zeitgeist, Cline's novel has polarized readers. Fans cherish it as a love letter to geek culture's ability to build bridges. Naysayers slam it as a Trump era fable that uses Eighties nostalgia to reclaim white male privilege (c.f. the fan-boy bile directed at so-called SJW elements in contemporary SF and fantasy fare). Which is patently untrue. Spielberg and Cline's vision of the future is multiracial with a strong female presence including a black lesbian character (a stellar turn from Emmy award-winning Atlanta writer Lena Waithe).
Interestingly Ready Player One's concept of pop culture as a sociopolitical force for both good and ill is not dissimilar to that of Masculin Feminine (1966), a film ironically by avowed Spielberg-hater Jean-Luc Godard (wonder what he'd make of that?). In terms of cinematic technique one would argue it is similarly avant-garde. Two thirds of Ready Player One is an animated film. Yet Spielberg pulls off the trick of keeping viewers emotionally invested in the computer-generated avatars. He maintains a breakneck pace delivering action, comedy, pathos, a genuinely sweet love story (Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke continue to impress) and scares. The latter including a masterful sequence recreating a certain iconic horror movie. Spielberg shows off his effortless mastery of varying tones and cinematic styles, juggling dystopian satire, Goonies-style children's adventure, young adult romance, social critique, Godardian post-modernism, Japanese sci-fi pastiche (including a climax that thrilled this lifelong Spielberg fan and J-pop culture obsessive!), and fairy tale. Along the way Cline's script, co-adapted for the screen by Zak Penn, touches on the corporate exploitation of gaming and geek culture, the danger of abandoning reality wholeheartedly for illusion, how real life feeds the imagination and vice-versa, and how fantasy can inspire positive real world social change.
As with the screen adaptation of Jurassic Park (1993), Spielberg re-fashions Cline's dense, intricately detailed novel into a lean, mean thrill machine, sacrificing the odd in-depth back-story along the way. However, such is Spielberg's skill with brisk Howard Hawks' style cinematic storytelling every character emerges a vivid, faceted personality with solid motivations. As Halliday, Mark Rylance, seemingly channeling Dana Carvey as Garth from Wayne's World (1992), emerges a truly tragic figure. The emotional spine of the movie tracks Wade's gradual discovery that Halliday poured not just a lifetime of pop cultural obsession into the OASIS but also real world regret. A realization that impacts his own life choices. As always with Spielberg it comes down to family. Wade Watts is another of Spielberg's orphaned boy heroes who assembles a surrogate family chiefly through his unabashed capacity for love. Sure, Ready Player One has a dazzling set-pieces laden with pop culture cameos and Easter eggs aplenty well worth a second or third viewing. But surprisingly it is a film mostly about love. Love for pop culture yes, but also young romantic love, love of friendship and family. Love for the simple silly pleasures in life wrought by your favourite video game, movie or pop song. And you've got to love a movie that finds multi-layered profundity in a quote from Lex Luthor in Superman II (1980).
His best films combine thrills with a childlike sense of wonder, but when he turns this to serious films like The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Bridge of Spies these efforts are, perhaps, less effective than the out-and-out popcorn movies which suit him best. Of his other films, 1941 was his biggest flop, The Terminal fell between two stools of drama and comedy and one-time Kubrick project A.I. divided audiences; Hook saw him at his most juvenile - the downside of the approach that has served him so well. Also a powerful producer.