Spielberg scores a lot of points with ‘Ready Player One’

Before making “Ready Player One,” Steven Spielberg had directed 30 feature films. There were ticket-selling triumphs (“Jaws”) and box office bombs (“The BFG”). There were somber studies of social issues (“The Color Purple”), haunting historical dramas (“Schindler’s List”), and science fiction flights of fancy (“A.I. Artificial Intelligence”). But it’s been a long time since Spielberg successfully latched on to the little kid inside of him and made a film that’s simply a bunch of fun, I’d say since “1941.”

From its opening salvo of music — Van Halen’s “Jump” — to its last — “You Make My Dreams” by Hall & Oates — “Ready Player One” is a whirlwind celebration of fantasy versus reality and good versus evil, a salute to competitive spirit, youthful idealism, and pop culture. It’s also the best all-round thing Spielberg has done since his 2005 remake of “War of the Worlds.”

You needn’t have read the 2011 novel by Ernest Cline (who co-wrote the screenplay), nor do you have to be a gamer or a virtual reality aficionado to be won over by what Spielberg has unleashed here. An open mind that doesn’t require that every little thing be explained, a love of visual effects, and a sense of moviegoing adventure are the only prerequisites.

It’s Columbus, Ohio, in the year 2045. Something has gone very wrong — socially, monetarily, environmentally — with our world, and by the time our protagonist, 18-year-old Wade (Tye Sheridan) was born, people had stopped trying to fix the countless problems. Wade lives in a massive jumble of a trailer park with his downhearted aunt and her awful boyfriend. Wade, like so many others, has turned away from reality, opting instead to don a special helmet and plug into the Oasis, a virtual reality haven where you choose an avatar and are able to go anywhere, do anything. Within the Oasis, there are no laws of physics or gravity or morality.

The brainchild of the brilliant and eccentric game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who died a few years earlier, the Oasis has now become the setting of a contest, one in which players vie to compete against each other in solving puzzles and finding clues. The winner will gain control of the Oasis, which is the largest company in the world.

The terrifically structured script offers multiple levels of storytelling, and keeps to the spirit of the novel, but continually veers off into different directions, so purists might complain, as they always will about adaptations. But everything sure works as a movie. Big, crash-filled road races through New York City lead to pop culture references ranging from King Kong to “Saturday Night Fever” to the DeLorean from “Back to the Future.” There are insightful back stories for Halliday and his former business partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), as well as for Samantha and Sorrento.

Those stories are in the film’s real-world segments. But about half of it is spent in the Oasis, where Parzival has a massive cyber crush on Art3mis, and Sorrento’s henchman I-R0k (T.J. Miller) gets the funniest lines of dialogue.

This is an enormous technology-fantasy film. Others like it, from “Tron” to “Speed Racer,” have failed catch enough viewers’ fancies. But Spielberg is such a kid at heart, it’s a perfect movie for him and from him. Big hit.

— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Ready Player One”
Written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline; directed by Steven Spielberg
With Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance, T.J, Miller
Rated PG-13