It’s a Spielberg movie.
Truly, that should be enough. If any living filmmaker has earned the assumption that every movie of theirs will be, at the very worst, worth seeing — and at the very best, a masterpiece like E.T. or Raiders of the Lost Ark — it’s Sir Stevie. And sure enough, Ready Player One is, at the very least, worth seeing. More than that, it’s the most fun movie of 2018 so far.
For those unfamiliar, Ernest Cline’s 2011 sci-fi novel enjoyed the same sudden surge in popularity as Twilight or The Da Vinci Code — and suffered the same backlash almost immediately.
Cline’s book took the formulaic structure of everything from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire — kids compete through a series of trials to win a contest with a splendiferous prize — and transplanted it into a dystopian future when everyone spends most of their time online in a virtual reality called the Oasis instead of living in the real world.
In and of itself, that’s a compelling enough storyline and setting. But Cline stuffed his book with so many random, incongruous ’80s pop culture references, it became a lark among many to spot all the various movies, TV shows, toys, music, books, and video games Cline stole from wholesale, cramming them all into a literary blender and hitting “pulse” for 385 pages.
That Ready Player One would be adapted into a movie was inevitable. That Steven Spielberg himself would man the helm was the surprise — particularly because no director has more thumbprints on epochal ’80s pop culture, whether via his own masterpieces or works he executive-produced.
Cline’s book heavily and prominently leans on Spielberg’s output, to the point of depending on it — which made it all the more worrisome when Spielberg said last year that, out of “modesty,” he wouldn’t be directly referencing any of his own movies. It seemed a bad idea. But he had a few great tricks up his sleeve no one expected.
Story-wise, Ready Player One focuses on teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), one of millions of gamers searching for a hidden Easter egg within the Oasis that was left behind by the original programmer, a Jobs-Zuckerberg amalgam played eccentrically by Mark Rylance.
Three secret keys lead the way through three locked doors to three unknown trials, ultimately bequeathing the entire Oasis to whoever wins — which immensely powerful corporate slimeball Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, leaving teeth marks in the scenery) has determined will be himself, at any cost.
The plot’s still really formulaic, of course, but Spielberg’s always been the master of turning mundanity into magic. He knows that Ready Player One needs to be about the journey, not the end point, so he makes it so dazzling you never really have time to critique things until the credits roll. The bravado with which the 71-year-old maestro plays in his digital toybox is something to behold, just as with The Adventures of Tintin, Minority Report, and Jurassic Park before it.
It’s too long. It needed a stronger ending. And regardless of what he substituted for his own works, the movie really needed some old-school Spielberg for him to play around with and invert. But for all the hokey looks of the trailers, the peculiar casting choices, and one extremely lambasted poster, Spielberg’s Ready Player One works. And not just better than the book: it’s downright the most fun piece of entertainment he’s made since 2011, flaws at all, and the best time you can have at the theatre right now.
At least until Avengers: Infinity War.