Ready Player One Olivia Cooke Tye Sheridan

A better reality awaits. 

An adventure tale whose plot revolves around the pleasures of losing yourself in fantasy worlds, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One is an exuberantly entertaining thrill ride, a giddy rush of a movie that zips along on a tide of breathless action and boundless pop-culture trivia. It may be a long time since anyone referred to Spielberg as cinema’s Peter Pan but at 71 his filmmaking here brims with youthful enthusiasm and élan.

That vivacity stems in large part from the fact that – like Ernest Cline’s 2011 source novel – the pop culture in which the film is steeped is that of Spielberg’s 1980s heyday. The story, however, takes place in a dystopian future rather than a nostalgic past. The year is 2045, the environment is knackered and real life is so depressing that most people escape at every opportunity into the virtual reality world of the Oasis, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game whose popularity has made it the world’s most important economic resource.

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Easter eggs.

The game’s creator, James Halliday, an eccentric, on-the-spectrum genius played with daffy, dreamy charm by Mark Rylance, has been dead for five years. But he left behind a puzzle, three digital Easter Eggs hidden within the Oasis. Which is where the 1980s come in. Laden with nerdy obscurity, Halliday’s cryptic clues all point towards the songs, games and movies of his own formative decade.

And a great deal is at stake for the so-called gunters, short for egg hunters. The first player to crack Halliday’s eggs will inherit his fortune and win control of the Oasis itself. In other words, the geek shall inherit the Earth, or, if not the Earth, then a half-a-trillion-dollar fortune.

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Young orphaned hero.

Enter Ready Player One’s young orphaned hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an obsessively dedicated gunter who lives with his aunt in ‘the Stacks’, a tower of trailer homes piled one on top of another in Halliday’s hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Life in the real world may be a bummer for Wade, but inside the Oasis he goes by the hip avatar Parzival, coolest of cool kids.

Parzival’s best friends are other gunters, namely tech wizard Aech and Japanese duo Daito and Sho. And so is the avatar with whom Wade is besotted, a punk pixie astride an Akira motorbike who goes by the name Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). There’s no guarantee, however, she isn’t some middle-aged dude named Chuck in real life.

Parzival and his friends are not the only ones determined to solve Halliday’s puzzle. So is Ben Mendelsohn’s Nolan Sorrento, a capitalist slimeball who wants to win control of the Oasis for his own rapacious company, IOI. And Sorrento has at his beck and call a corporate army of gamers known as Sixers.

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Kids versus The Man.

Thus the scene is set for a titanic struggle between good and evil. Kids versus The Man. Scrappy aficionados up against a soulless one-percenter. It’s a battle that takes place both within the dazzling virtual landscapes of the Oasis and upon the scuzzy streets and sleek corporate spaces of the city of Columbus, as Wade teams up with the real people behind his friends’ avatars. As you might expect, there are some surprises.

Spielberg stages all this with tremendous vim, deftly cutting back and forth between the different dimensions without impeding the story’s drive. Yet what gives Ready Player One its special quality is that the frenzied chases and fights are embedded in a fanboy bonanza of pop culture. There are parts to play for the gull-winged DeLorean from Back to the Future and for King Kong, for an iconic Stanley Kubrick film, and for the Iron Giant, Mechagodzilla and countless other touchstones of geek culture. Buckaroo Banzai and the fashion sense of Duran Duran get shouts out too.

Indeed, the whole movie is one great triumphant celebration of geekdom. This gives rise to ironies and contradictions that probably don’t bear deep scrutiny – a tale about underdogs battling a giant corporation that is made by, yes, a giant corporation; downtrodden heroes whose idealistic goal is to escape reality rather than change it. Think things through and the whole edifice begins to crumble. Yet none of this detracts from the movie’s pleasures. Whichever way you slice it, Ready Player One is enormous fun. And you don’t have to be a geek to enjoy it.

Certificate 12A. Runtime 140 mins. Director Steven Spielberg

Ready Player One stars Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance.