Ready Player One review: “evokes a sense of wonder, but it’s no classic”

Steven Spielberg returns to his roots with a nostalgic sci-fi that delivers plenty of video game thrills but too little story

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★★★

Ready Player One finds its director, Steven Spielberg, at something of a crossroads. His last three films – The Post, The BFG and Bridge of Spies – faltered either critically or financially, but this adaptation of Ernest Cline’s hit book offers the director a chance to demonstrate the kind of flair that made him the creator of the Hollywood summer movie. After almost 45 years in the business, can he still rise to that challenge?

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The film is set in 2045, when over-population has transformed cities into stacked slums. People escape their desolation via a virtual reality game called Oasis, where people can do or be anything they want. When the game’s creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) dies, he creates a quest to find three keys hidden within the game, all of which are linked to moments from his past, and the winner will inherit his fortune and control of the Oasis.

Tye Sheridan (Mud, X-Men: Apocalypse) plays Wade Watts, a young man from the slums who is obsessed with both gaming and Halliday. Teaming up with mysterious gamer Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Wade searches for the keys in hope of a better life, but he soon learns there is more at stake.

Any film set in a virtual world is going to have to look good and, in that sense, Ready Player One excels. The depiction of the Oasis is incredible; its neon hyperspace is filled with adventure and familiar faces from popular culture. From retro nightclubs to battlefields that contain probably every significant cultural character from the past 30 years (seriously, recognising every cameo – from the Jurassic Park dinosaur to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Heroes – is a task in itself), what visually transpires evokes a sense of wonder that stands up alongside any film you will see this summer. 

However, where Ready Player One does disappoint is in the story, which is at times sorely lacking. Just as Spielberg evolved Pinocchio for 2001’s AI: Artificial Intelligence, this film unfolds as a kind of 21st Century Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with heavy handed messages about corporate greed and our reliance on technology. Were it a shorter film, this may have mattered less, but over the course of two hours and 20 minutes, the lack of depth gradually reveals itself (particularly in the overly sentimental final act).

If you’re just looking for thrills, there’s plenty to be had. Geeks will be in heaven with a plot dense with cultural references (Wade drives a Back to the Future Delorean in the Oasis, and a sequence set in The Shining’s Overlook Hotel is breathtaking). The chase scenes are also thrilling, with one particular set-piece switching between the real world and the Oasis to heighten the tension.

While they may not be particularly nuanced, the characters are certainly likeable. Sheridan and Cooke share charming chemistry, and both bring a lot to the table playing earnest youngsters who want to make the world a better place. Elsewhere, Ben Mendelsohn has the time of his life as the corporate baddie out to foil our heroes, while Mark Rylance is terrific as Halliday (his third collaboration with Spielberg after Bridge of Spies and The BFG), playing the genius as a mixture of Steve Jobs and Garth from Wayne’s World. The Oscar-winner adds a nerdy soulfulness that lifts every moment he’s in.

There’s a lot to like about Ready Player One and, at times, it shows glimmers of the kind of fantasy adventure that made the words “A Steven Spielberg Film” so sacred to movie fans in the 80s. Scratch the shiny surface, though, and there isn’t the story structure to support 140 minutes of visual bombardment. Maybe the expectations are unfairly high given the talent behind the camera, though, because while it may not be a classic for the ages, Ready Player One certainly never stops entertaining.

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Ready Player One is released in the cinemas on Thursday 29th March