It is on course to be the director’s biggest box office hit since Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.
The statistic is apt, since that movie also marked a return to popcorn blockbuser territory that somehow lacked the indefinable sublime dusting on Spielberg magic which lifts his greatest movies to iconic status.
Crystal Skull was doomed by a ridiculous alien storyline and Ready Player One suffers from an over-simple plot which bewilderingly lacks sincerity.
It dazzles and offers plenty of delightful geektastic Easter eggs, but never quite connects with our minds or our hearts.
The movie is based on the cult novel by Ernest Cline which is a paean to 1980s pop culture. Nothing could be more in Spielberg’s wheelhouse.
He has explained his reluctance to include his own feast of classic movies (Jurassic Park’s T-Rex aside) in the countless big screen nods to iconic images from King Kong to the iron Giant. In fact, rather than a distraction, they might have further emphasised what was missing.
The movie, at its heart, contrasts the wish-fulfilling glossy and glib escapism of virtual reality with the disappointments of reality which we must (presumably) learn to embrace. Unfortunately, it never quite convinces us that either option is a winner.
The extraordinary VR universe of the Oasis is impressively realised but somehow never feels like more than a big-budget computer game. It is fun, fast and frantic but strangely unappealing.
The usual bleak futuristic “real” Earth is the predictable blend of slick and soulless ‘haves’ in gleaming chrome offices and dusty and dirty ‘have nots’ in pseudo-slums.
Tye Sheridan is commited as the plucky young gamer or ‘Gunter’ Parzival/Wade Watts who is one of the hopefuls searching for the hidden keys to the kingdom. These were left by the creator of the Oasis, Mark Rylance’s latest oddball Spielberg collaborative creation James Halliday, somewhere in his sprawling VR world as a quest to determine who deserves to rule his kingdom after his death.
Races must be raced, clues solved, boo-hiss baddies overcome, friendships found and love won.
An engaging supporting cast include Olivia Cooke as Samantha/Art3mis, a famous Gunter who is refreshingly more than a match for any man and fears her appearance will be a disappointment in the real world. It’s refreshing until it is revealed her worries rest on the painfully trite facial birthmark that hardly marrs her blatant beauty.
Ben Mendelsohn turns in another gurning but strangely unmenacing (and utterly ineffective) villain as Nolan Sorrento, the CEO of Innovative Online Industries, who seeks full control over the OASIS.
Lena Waithe adds heart and sass as Aech, a Gunter who is a fearsome male orc in the OASIS but an awkward female in reality. It’s another refreshing concept that is never explored at all in the movie.
The quest to find three magical keys is packed with a dizzying array of 1980s references to books, early computer games and pop culture. It’s a fun romp but lacks any real sense of menace or consequence. Everyone fights VR battles and the only loss of murdered relatives in the real world goes strangely unmourned.
There’s a great sequence set in Kubrick’s The Shining hotel and sporadic moments of cinematic wonder but what exactly is the point?
The book ends with the unequivocable judgement that reality must be lived and not escaped. Spielberg’s grand finale fudges the issue and fails to land one final punch.
READY PLAYER ONE IS OUT NOW