Ready Player One is fun. That's all you need to know. It's not the best film you'll see this year, but it is probably the most commercially viable film you'll see.
Ready Player One is, at heart, a kids' film. But Steven Spielberg (with a little help from Ernest Cline's novel on which the film is based) has filled the movie with so many 1980s film, music, and culture references that parents who have been dragged to see it will feel not only that they've enjoyed the film, but that they're a bit clever for watching it.
A young audience will delight in the ongoing adventures of Virtual Reality avatars Parzival, Art3mis and Aech, who attempt to solve the mystery of online genius James Donovan Halliday's virtual world, the Oasis. Meanwhile, parents get to rack up extra points by spotting references to the 1980s. It's a stroke of genius that guarantees tevery possible demographic will love the film.
But Spielberg has pulled off this marketing stunt of a movie without appearing cynical. The story takes place half in the VR world and half in reality, but the characters are, surprisingly, both likeable and accessible, whether in avatar form or in a real-life slum in a dystopian future United States.
It’s essentially a pretty standard hero’s quest story. A Steve Jobs-like nerd has created an alternative universe in which everybody chooses to live, given the far from optimistic likely future of humanity. A corporate entity, led by Ben Mendelsohn’s Sorrento, wishes to capitalise on the profits available when Mark Rylance’s god-like Halliday dies, and some teens led by Tye Sheridan’s Wade Watts – spot the Marvelesque superhero name alliteration – set out to save their beloved virtual world from capitalist greed, in both physical and avatar form.
Ready Player One could be terrible, like a Red Dawn-style cash-in on audiences' short attention spans and love of a certain era of culture, but Spielberg has never made an awful film, and he doesn't start with this one. If this doesn't become one of the highest-grossing films of all time, I will be very surprised. Children will love the quest, the animation and the gadgets. Adults will love the postmodern notion of Spielberg comprehensively name-checking his own golden era.
But, most importantly, everyone will enjoy a entertaining couple of hours of FX and thrill-heavy silliness. It really can't fail.