Even though Ready Player One is all about the insubstantial and the digital - from memories to all-pervasive flickering images on screens - it first saw life in the very substantial and analogue form of a novel.  On slices of dead tree.  But, it’s worth mentioning, the written word is pretty much the only form of creative media that a person can do on their own.  All the games and films Cline loves are the expensive products of platoons of creatives.  A novel just needs ideas, time and a keyboard.  So, I see why he chose such an outdated medium to create his own fantasy about the power of the individual.
            Cline grew up in the 80s, marinating in the stew of popular media that was a new and fresh thing in the wake of Star Wars (1977).  The movies, music, TV shows and video games of that time formed him, in the way they formed an entire generation of kids.  And over that landscape of popular fantasies, one figure rose up to fill the sky and blot out the other suns - the monolithic figure of Steven Spielberg.
            When Cline took a break from writing film scripts to compose his first novel, his love story to the 80s and the media he loved from it, he could have hardly foreseen that -thanks, largely, to a little thing called Stranger Things - a whole new generation of kids were going to become obsessed with the 80s.  Nor could he have imagined, in his wildest dreams, that Steven Spielberg himself would decide to make his book into a film.
            When I learned that Spielberg was going to make it, I was delighted because that meant that there was going to be no problem clearing all the Intellectual Property rights for the innumerable Spielbergian references in the film.  Then I learned that he would, in effect, cut most of that out and I was hugely disappointed.  What an act of abject cowardice, I thought.  How precious is he about his own work?  Was he making the film simply to stop anyone else making it?
            Well, now I’ve seen what he did with it and can absolutely see why he changed it.  He was right to!  If he had crammed it full of references to his own films, it would be too self-congratulatory, too masturbatory.  Instead, Warner Brothers bought the rights to the book, and gave Spielberg free reign to play with their back category, instead of his own.   
            I’m not going to dwell on the guest appearances and ‘easter eggs’, there are a million places you can go for that.  My reason for not doing this, is that there are two particular ‘eggs’ in there that my partner was gob-smacked by.  But, despite studiously avoiding spoilers, I knew about them both in advance.  One from the first trailer, and one from a loose-lipped reviewer.  She didn’t know, so I got to experience the joy of realisation of those two moments through her - and I don’t want to spoil them for you.
            But I will say that, uniquely, ‘easter eggs’ are sewn into the fabric of this film and that isn’t just a gimmick, it’s a necessity.  The story concerns an easter egg hunt through an infinite virtual world made up of innumerable fictional worlds, so it is only right that it should feature cameos (as we used to call them) by characters from those worlds.  Wreck It Ralph (2012) did it first, of course, populating its virtual multiverse with countless characters from other Disney movies, and video games various, obscure and obvious. 
            Of course, playing spot-the-cameo will get in the way of you paying attention to the film, so Spielberg plugs us in to The Oasis within minutes of the film starting and gives us a quick guided tour positively jam packed with ‘easter eggs’, followed by a race featuring even more.  Good to get them out of the way early, so we can then concentrate on the plot and characters.
            It’s not an unfair question to wonder if Spielberg’s heart is still in the right place.  He’s now 71, and far less idealistic than he was when he made films about welcoming aliens with open arms.  His collaboration with his ubiquitous cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski (which began with Schindler’s List and has continued these 25 years as an almost exclusive partnership for both men) is indicative of the turn in Spielberg’s interests. 
            The films he makes with Kaminski are visually cold.  Lots of greys and blues.  All of ’em, even light-hearted fare like Catch Me If You Can (2002), have the same serious, depressing colour palette and chilly side-light.  Where Spielberg’s films in the 80s were warm and colourful and idealistic (sometimes annoyingly so) the influence of the Polish cinematographer seems to have swung him in the opposite direction, hardening him into a more knowing film-maker, with a more cynical vision of the world. 
The typically bright and vibrant photography of Janusz Kaminski.
            Corrupt and incompetent officials were always a feature of his work (take a bow Murray Hamilton), but that was just a hold-over of his hippie student days.  These figures were always in the background and of far less consequence than the vibrant, lively foreground characters.  But that has slowly evolved, so now the authorities are far more central and consequential in his work - from the scheming politicians of Amistad (1997) and the petty-fogging bureaucrats of The Terminal (2004), via the scheming politicians of Lincoln (2012), to the Russians of Bridge of Spies and the, ehm, scheming politicians of The Post (2017).
            This monochrome Kaminski palette is perfectly suited to the seriousness of those grown-up films, but I have long felt that it works against the magic of his fantasy and adventure films.  Minority Report (2002) and War of the Worlds (2005), for example, are particularly brutal in their use of colour and light.  This is partly why I found Tintin (2011) and The BFG (2016) so unconvincing.  They didn’t radiate joy like his earlier films could.
            Of course, I complained about the irritating sentimental of films like his story in The Twilight Zone Movie (1983) was, or Always (1989) or ... shudder ... Hook (1991), so I guess there’s no pleasing some people.
A serious and cynical younger Spielberg, clearly burdened by the fact that The Academy kept ignoring him because he was making too much god-damn money.  Oh, the misery of immeasurable popularity.
            The upshot of all this was, I was seriously questioning whether Spielberg still had any instinct for fun, family movies.  Once upon a time, serious questions were asked about whether he’d ever be able to make a serious film for adults; now one wonders if he’s forgotten how to make anything else.  JJ Abrams has channelled Spielberg’s zeitgeist, most obviously in Super 8 (2011) and, of course, The Duffer Brothers have filed the serial numbers off all of his best ideas and presented them to a new, uncritical audience, as Stranger Things.  Or Stephen Things as it should really be called, since the bits they didn’t take from Spielberg, they took from King!
            But these are just Spielbergian avatars.  What about the real thing?
            The long, rambling, poorly-focussed point I’m making is that it seemed, for a long time, that Spielberg had lost his box office mojo.  Until now.  If ever there was a vehicle for 21st century Steven to remind us of the joys of 1980s Steven, this was it - and he steers it effortlessly.
            I was surprised by how different from the book these were.  Ernest Cline, clearly, hasn’t been precious about his creation.  I read his geekgasm book a couple of years ago and, as such, I can tell you that Spielberg’s film version is really Ready Player 2.0.  It is very different from the book - but entirely in the same vein.  A big part of the reason for that was the decision to hire Cline as the script-writer and adapter of his own work.  Working with veteran scribe Zak Penn, he has, essentially, taken the story and the world of the book and created a branching narrative.  That’s a gaming term for when your character can go off and do different things and (to a limited extent) alter the rest of the game.  Hark at me, like I know the first thing about games.
            Here, in the film, we have the same vision, as in the book, of a hellish world 25-30 years hence, where “reality is a bummer” and “we no longer try to fix problems, we just try to outlive them” (sound familiar?).  Politics has ceased to have any meaning (as cyberpunk writers like William Gibson were predicting 35-40 years ago) as every strata of society is overseen by a vast all-pervasive corporation - Innovative Online Industries - or IOI as it is generally known (a nice touch of the 1984s, there) .  Yeah, this is all sounding very familiar.  It’s worth mentioning that, as with a lot of good science fiction, this isn’t really about the future ... It’s about now, a version of now just given a slight satirical twist.
In The Stacks - the only thing that's in colour, is on screen.
            Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is our guide through two different environments, firstly the real world of The Stacks, a horrendous world of poverty, injustice and inequality, which Kaminski, shoots in his usual restrained shades of grey.  Then there is the far more colourful place, where who you are and how much money you have is of far less importance than how good your game-playing skills and how deep your knowledge of retro media: the massive on-line virtual reality world of The Oasis.  Here, Wade becomes the elite gamer Parzival.
            Were the real world is an all-too-credible dystopia, The Oasis is the latest iteration of Thomas More’s utopia, a place of untold wealth, equality and justice which, by its very nature, can never really exist.  But, of course, short-sighted Renaissance Man that he was, he reckoned without virtual reality.
            The creator of The Oasis has died (always a good career move for a virtual celebrity) and has left a trail of clues buried in his virtual world.  The first person to solve all the riddles and find three hidden keys, will be given absolute control of The Oasis, and the trillion-dollar IOI business behind it.  This has led to a world-wide gold-rush of people, either individually or in groups, trying to follow the breadcrumbs and win the golden ticket.  Yes, it's kinda like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1971); so much so that I'm surprised they didn't layer any of the songs in there.  Maybe they did, maybe I missed 'em.
            Wonder when Spielberg will announce that the keys to his kingdom at Amblin have been buried in an Indiana Jones film?  Sorry.  Where was I?
            Of course, IOI itself is hardly sitting back and watching all this, it has set up a ‘war room’ filled dozens of nameless people in virtual rigs, all striving to get to the prize first.  Enter Nolan Sorrento, head of IOI, who doesn’t quite click his heels and wax his ’tache to cue the audience’s hisses, but he might as well.  He informs the board that complete and undisputed ownership of The Oasis will give him free reign to fill up 80% of people’s attention with advertising; demonstrating that the true lords of evil in this technological age, are the ones who sell the ad space.
            Sorry, did someone just cough the word “Facebook”?
The Orwellian IOI is determined to win the game, neither by guile nor expertise, but by sheer weight of numbers.
            So, Ready Player One is the old story of free-spirited individuals facing off against a huge, soulless corporation with the free-will of the world at stake. It’s 2112.  It’s Star Wars.  Huge, soulless corporations are fond of telling this story.  Maybe it's to taunt us?  Unlike Cline’s book, the film isn’t the product of one guy with a good idea, this is the product of thousands of people spending, reputedly, $350 million - including, please note, advertising spend.  It’s a very different thing.
            The film is a multi-layered puzzle in itself, filled with the obvious attention-grabbing 'easter eggs', and the simple dynamics of a hero’s quest narrative, but then, shellacked onto that, is a lot of telling and subtle detail.  The film addresses the psychology of avatars, of the virtual face we present to the virtual world, and how that mediation can get in the way of actual human emotions. I'm not convinced it does this particularly well, mind - cos the emotions it's dealing with are kinda simplistic - but it's good that it attempts.
            There is some very skilled editing, as we skip back and forth between the real world and virtual, and see how events in the one affect events in the other.  Spielberg knows we can follow this, because he’s seen Nolan do it in Inception (2010).  But the point I feel Spielberg is making here is that, no matter how much you feel you are hiding behind your avatar, it is really translucent, your real identity and real personality leaks through.  Most of the avatars - particularly those of the two leads and main protagonist - look a lot like their real-world selves.  That’s an important and fascinating social point in these days of multiple online personas.  Programmed into the film’s code is a concern about the relationships that develop in the idealised, highly-selective online world, and the effects they can have on real people in the real world: “Real world consequences ... real life and death type stuff!”
            Part of this desire to bridge the gap between the virtual and the actual is the way that Cline and Penn have souped-up the character of Art3mis  - real name Samantha, don’t call her Sam - (played by Olivia Cooke), who, pointedly, isn’t a 300 lb. dude named Chuck who lives in his mother's basement.  Not that it should matter if he was, but still.  She’s given far more to do than in the novel, especially when it comes to helping Wade grow up a bit and not be the introverted geek he idolises.  She's not the most pro-active character ever, but at least she gets to do more than trip over things and scream.  So she's not an 80s female lead.  She's not Willie Scott!
             Halliday, the dead designer of The Oasis (played by Spielberg’s latest muse, Mark Rylance), revealed in one of the memories he conveniently archived for anyone to watch, that his greatest fear was kissing a girl, and his greatest regret was not plucking up the nerve to do so.  Yes, this is fairly infantile, but isn't that one of the deliberate 80s throwbacks - back to a time when being a geek was not socially acceptable, or cool, or mainstream, as it is now?  I think so.  And besides, an entire generation of kids have grown up experiencing everything through screens and, I am told, are developing serious social anxieties when they are offline; so, maybe the simple act of plucking up the courage to kiss a girl is not such a lame, insignificant thing.
            I think the casting of Simon Pegg as Halliday's surviving partner 'Og' feeds into this, because Pegg was a pioneer of being Geek And Proud, with his 90s TV show Spaced.  That was the moment when geeks (or 'nerds' as they were more commonly known ... or 'freaks', of course) started to emerge from the stereotypical mother's basement and edge into the limelight and the mainstream - typically through their use of the internet.
Wade and Samantha AFK.  As kids probably don't say anymore.
            As for the rest of Wade’s gang, the only one who really comes across as a fully-developed character, is Aech - played by Lena Waithe - who is Wade’s best friend in both book and film, even though they’ve never met IRL.  (See, see ... I’m down with my homies.  In a hood).  Aech is a useful character to have around, being possessed of the ability to repair virtually anything.  Or should that be ‘repair anything virtual’?
            The inevitably spectacular show-down is very different from the much more personal conflict of the novel - But that’s inevitable.  Films need spectacle.  Here, the show-down at the end resembles nothing so much as the Battle of Pellenor Fields (a problem I had with the showdown of Black Panther, too).
            If you love the book, you might be disappointed at some of the omissions (there’s no walk-through the film War Games [1983], for example), but there are some delightful additions that make the film a companion piece to the book.  They are sufficiently different that they complement each other, I don’t feel the one is better or worse than the other.  I will note that some of the things that have been added to the show-down will make the film very popular in Japan!  It's much less cerebral than the book but, then, it needs to be.  Typing code can be made exciting - Mr. Robot has managed it - but that isn't what this film is doing, it's doing spectacle - and, nowadays, that's not done on a human scale, that's cast numbers of large things whacking each other. 
            This is a joyride of a movie.  Two and a quarter hours flew past.  There were laugh out-loud moments, mouth open in awe moments and an overwhelming feel good sense that a lot of spectacle films lack.  Ben Mendelson isn’t actually scary as Sorrento - his virtual henchman i-Rok (TJ Miller) and real-life henchwoman F'Nale ( Hannah John-Kamen) both come across as more convincing antagonists - so you never really feel that anyone is in danger (after all, you can always respawn if you die), but these were only concerns that dawned on me as I was emerging back into what passes for the real world.
            For me, this is the most all-round satisfying film Spielberg has stuck his name to the front of, since Minority Report.  I’m definitely going to see it again and - in an uncharacteristic move - I think I may even recommend you to go see it in 3D.  If ever there was film that had earned the extra dimension ...
Where the book valued research and dedication, the film celebrates game-play skills.  But that's in-keeping with the needs of the different medium.  And the few scenes where Parzival and Art3mis do ask Jeeves, are very entertaining.  That's how you dump exposition, guys!
            The idealism at the heart of Ready Player One, is something that it has borrowed from a film which doesn’t actually get a name check - one of the first virtual reality films: Hackers (1995).  That film tells the story of a group of bored, overly-intelligent kids who take on a huge corporation and the FBI.  They do it as a group of individuals, using the networks to gather together to ‘hack the planet’.  Back in the early days of the internet, this was the idealistic ambition for the new tool.  Some people saw it as terrifying and dangerous, but other saw it as freeing, empowering, democratising.  Nearly a quarter of a century later, with the reputation of ‘the internet’ (if that is even a phrase that people still use) being batted around between dark net criminals, data mining corporations and pornographers ... and less and less about research, outreach and activism; one wonders who, ultimately, was right.
            But Ready Player One is optimistic.  It tells us that, no-matter how omniscient the enemy, it will always be possible for the little guy to use the behemoth’s size against it and eventually bring it down.  Wouldn’t that be nice.  To think that a sheer act of will could control Google, or Facebook, or Cambridge Analytica.  Of course, the website you’re reading this review on is owned by Google.  The social media site you linked from, is run by another faceless corporation.  And heaven only knows who owns the company that pumps electricity into your house so you can do both.
            The message of the film - delivered right at the end, to catch the attention of those who are still in their seats - in case there’s a mid-credits scene - is that we should maybe spend more time in the real world.
            Fuck that.  Have you seen the real world?  It’s horrible!  Think I'll stick with my flickering screens.
Are you the Key Master?
Dir: Steven Spielberg
Script: Ernest Cline & Zak Penn
Dur: 140 mins
Cert 12A