Steven Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’ is a visual masterpiece

When a movie opens with Van Halen’s “Jump” and features a three-way battle between the Iron Giant, Mechagodzilla and the RX-78-2 Gundam mech — it can only be Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One.”

Steven Spielberg’s new silver screen adaptation takes on Ernest Cline’s 2011 hit novel of the same name, and the film is as memorable for its construction of creative pop-culture mashups as it is for the brilliant visual design only Spielberg can deliver.

The screenplay written by Cline and Zak Penn, who co-wrote Marvel’s “The Avengers,” uses the book’s framework but deviates from the novel’s plot progression. Even if there are a few too many egregious product placements and a somewhat lackluster leading cast, the movie is worth the ride.

“Ready Player One” follows downtrodden everyman Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) in the dystopian near future of 2045, where he and the entire population of Earth prefer to live in a virtual reality world known as the OASIS. In it, anything is possible and popular culture reigns supreme.

Wade and his allies race to gain full custody of the OASIS by completing three challenges the game’s deceased creator Halliday (Mark Rylance) programmed before Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and his authoritarian company Innovative Online Industries, referred to as IOI, can turn it into a corporate machine.

What stands out the most about “Ready Player One” is the distinct visual divide between the real world and the OASIS.

When characters are unplugged from virtual reality, each scene emulates the grainy cinematography found in ‘80s flicks like “E.T the Extra-Terrestrial,” and much of the advanced technology appears grungy, reminiscent of “Star Wars.”

However, the dystopian world everyone wants to escape from isn’t well presented beyond Watt’s home in the Stacks, a jenga-like stack of trailers in Ohio. Most of the other real-life sets beyond the lavish IOI headquarters appear like average downtown city blocks vaguely covered by loose sheets of paper.

Meanwhile the virtual world of the OASIS is as crisp and cleanly rendered as a modern-day video game, creating beautiful and wildly creative environments like a planet-sized zero-gravity dance club and literal endless hallways lined with fully adjustable dioramas representing real-life memories.

Everyone’s diverse in-game avatars emphasize the video game nature of the OASIS with slightly uncanny valley qualities, like the large eyes of Artemis (Olivia Cooke). To the film’s credit, these qualities feel intentionally implemented rather than being distracting technological limitations.

One of the more brilliant motifs on display throughout the movie is the dichotomy between the blue glow of Watt’s virtual character Parzival and the red glow of Artemis, his love interest.

However, in terms of visual creativity, the absolute best scene of the film is Spielberg’s breathtaking love letter to “The Shining” halfway through, which is absolutely worth the price of admission by itself.

Probably the biggest fault of the on-screen spectacle is its hit-and-miss referential nature.

Like Cline’s novel, Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” takes deep cuts at ‘80s popular culture that mostly mesh and offer plenty of fun easter eggs to catch–a few carefully constructed yet overwhelming scenes warranting a rewatch with a pause button.

The film includes a lot more contemporary popular culture than the book, which sometimes fit in but other times stand out as obvious product placement. For example, there’s a nauseatingly long flyover of a Minecraft-branded world within the first five minutes.

Spielberg’s movie differs from the source material enough that fans looking for a faithful recreation may be disappointed. However, his take on the book’s basic foundation is an interesting one that’s worth seeing thanks to the film’s new take on the three Halliday challenges.

The characters in “Ready Player One” unfortunately don’t shine as bright as the visuals. Sheridan, Cooke, Mendelsohn and the supporting cast are serviceable in their roles, but aren’t memorable outside of scenes deeply inculcated in funny or clever references.

Sorrento’s hired mercenary I-R0k (T.J. Miller) was the most unexpectedly enjoyable character in the film. His intimidating design contrasted beautifully with awkward, geeky line delivery, making him a hilarious comic relief who brightened up every scene he entered.

“Ready Player One” is a movie that film lovers can watch over and over again as a visual spectacle from Spielberg with a myriad of references to pick out in each viewing. Despite some forced pop-culture references and a somewhat uninspired cast, “Ready Player One” also differs from Cline’s print counterpart in a unique enough way, making it just as worth experiencing as the novel.

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