Ready Player One film review: Steven Spielberg takes on the joys and dangers of escapism

Can the master breathe life into Ernest Cline’s nostalgia bible?

Going to the movies as a form of escapism for a couple of hours, whether it’s to see a horror film, the latest Hollywood blockbuster, a romantic comedy or a science fiction extravaganza has always offered the chance to be part of an adventure. One that you could choose to share with friends while fighting over a bucket of popcorn or a solo voyage where you could chat to friends afterwards about the best special effects and your favourite actors. With Ready Player One master filmmaker Steven Spielberg celebrates the joy a few hours of cinema-going or game-playing can bring with an exhilarating world-colliding exuberance that also heeds a warning about the dangers of spending too much time away from reality.

Loosely based on Ernest Cline’s novel, the film, set in 2045, features cutting edge technology to create the virtual world seen in the book called the OASIS. At times, it’s awe inspiring to watch, and the action is impeccable. Kids’ dreams come true with iconic pop culture figures competing on race tracks, battlefields, dance-floors and even inside critically acclaimed horror films. The story zips in between the OASIS and reality, hitting the ground running as Van Halen’s Jump zooms the viewer into the life of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan with messy hair and loose jeans bearing a resemblance to young Spielberg) and his avatar Parzival – a sleekly dressed, perfectly coiffed vision of a young man.

Wade’s best mate in the OASIS is Aech, a technical whizz who is creating an Iron Giant in a delightful games workshop. Lena Waithe is a funny and charming presence throughout the film and it’s great to see her work her comedic magic. Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) is the girl Wade thinks he is in love with, she’s designed as an anime fairy who we first meet roaring the engine of Shotaro Kaneda’s bike from Akira. They are all taking part in a giant puzzle game to locate the ultimate Easter egg but are up against an evil corporation, IOI, run by big bad boss guy, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn totally going for it) who wants to win the game for world domination.

The game was started by the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday (a white floppy haired Mark Rylance) who after his death sets a Willy Wonka style challenge to inherit his virtual world and billions of dollars. After his funeral (a Star Trek themed open casket event) a giant library is opened where gamers can search through his life for clues. Halliday is an eccentric character who is frankly pathetic when it comes to women, and Rylance imbues the genius inventor with loser credentials that are endearing and infuriating. Unlike the recent Black Mirror episode, ‘USS Callister’, there is a degree of sympathy for a man who loses himself in games. He’s less malevolent and more regretful.

There are certain pitfalls and perils in the film that occasionally take away from the thrilling spectacle of sights such as T-Rex and King Kong wreaking havoc across New York. Art3mis is a highly capable gamer who solves riddles with mad skills, but the romance side of the story is flimsy and gives off a bad whiff that she is something of a prize for Wade.

The winning factor that binds the film together is the friendship aspect with the players meeting up to deal with IOI’s real life maniacal behaviour. A bittersweet ending nicely wraps the film up by suggesting that sometimes it’s fun to visit the little kid inside, to wade through nostalgia and drink it all in but you can’t stay fixed in that spot because it’s toxic and destructive.