Ernest Cline’s pulp sci-fi novel ‘Ready Player One’ is a wiki’s worth of pop-culture references stitched together with a derivative plot. It has many readers but substantially fewer devotees. Steven Spielberg’s fun but forgettable adaptation may run into the same difficulties. It’s a CGI-heavy fantasia that will pop your eyeballs, but giddy as it is, it never quite sells its characters or gets much purchase on your emotions.
Like ‘Tron’ being given a state-of-the-art update, it’s mostly set in an AI entity called the Oasis. A world of wish-fulfilment, it’s accessed by the downtrodden citizens of a dystopian 2045 with the fervour of addicts. Our tour guide is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an orphaned teenager who scours the Oasis in the guise of his avatar, Parzival, looking for ’80s-referencing clues, or Easter eggs, left by its founder (Mark Rylance). Teaming up with Wade/Parzival – though with a more political agenda – is spiky hacktivist Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). Corporate villain Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, having a ball) brings oily zeal.
Unusually for Spielberg, the emotional grace-notes that elevate his best work in the genre – Elliott’s flying bicycle in ‘ET’, the first dinosaur reveal in ‘Jurassic Park’ – are substituted with the sugar rush of VFX cyberscapes. But there’s spectacle in abundance, along with more ’80s and ’90s references than you can shake an arcade joystick at. Our introduction to the Oasis is a breakneck race through an ever-shifting New York cityscape populated by rampaging movie monsters (King Kong! The T.rex from ‘Jurassic Park’!). It has Parzival behind the wheel of the DeLorean from ‘Back to the Future’, lining up against The A-Team’s van, Mad Max’s Interceptor and the bike from ‘Akira’, among many others. It’s a buzz from start to finish and a lingering high to carry you through the plotty bits.
It’s best to approach ‘Ready Player One’ as a giant game of Pokémon Go for anyone who spent their pocket money playing ‘Street Fighter II’ or had an Adam West Batmobile tucked away in their toy box. But if half the fun is in spotting the hidden references, the proportions are out of sync. You’re left with the overriding sensation of a master playing someone else’s greatest hits.