If there was even a shred of doubt about Steven Spielberg's versatility as a director as he's become a septuagenarian, the past few months have blown them away. After orchestrating the refined, topically relevant period journalism drama "The Post," he forges a film that couldn't be more different, but is every bit as excellent in the virtual reality dreamscape of "Ready Player One."
The film feels like the buoyant expression of a first-time filmmaker, tempered with the touch of a wise master who is nowhere near content with resting on the laurels of an unmatched career, and is obsessed with continuing to blaze trails.
The bulk of "Ready Player One" takes place inside the virtual dystopia of Oasis -- Facebook melded with "Second Life" gone haywire in the manner of "The Matrix." People jack into the virtual realm not so much as an escape from real life, but because so much meaningful commerce and interaction takes place there that the physical world has been rendered all but irrelevant.
Inside the Oasis, people don't so much lose their identities as let their true selves shine in avatar form, indulging egotistical urges without the restrictions of physics. Fanboy fantasies come to life, with characters from movies and video games melding with the general population. To give you an idea of just how boundless and indulgent the Oasis is, an early sequence shows Batman helping someone climb Mount Everest.
Not that Spielberg is a stranger to sci-fi films that blend live-action with a heavy dose of CGI-crafted worlds. Spielberg adds his emotionally resonant touch to the cyberpunk genre in the way he touched on in the masterful "Minority Report" and the fascinating misfire, "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence."
Screenwriters Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, who wrote the source novel, tear the shaky, somewhat insipid original story apart, replacing drab moments with sequences that make the story more cohesive and the characters more defined.
Cline's choppy, formulaic book was beloved by geek culture, but reads like amateur hour compared to the material Spielberg usually works with. Credit Cline for conjuring enough promise to draw Spielberg's interest, and the master filmmaker for exerting his vision on the project to lift it to heights it never could have hoped to reach without him.
Tye Sheridan stars as Wade Watts, an impoverished teen who lives in a slum of stacked trailers. He sees his one shot out of poverty by plunging into the Oasis and winning a scavenger hunt-style game staged by the late, eccentric owner. The one who finds three hidden keys will become unimaginably rich and powerful, taking control of the Oasis and its vast economy.
Wade, who goes by the name Parzival in the Oasis, teams with his crush, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and a trio of sidekicks to work against the Sixers, a corporate-controlled menagerie obsessed with winning the contest so it can exploit the denizens of the realm.
The plot may be standard, Dan Brown-style, save-the-world-by-solving-the-clues stuff, but Spielberg's vision and personal touch make every moment seem like something special and never before seen. It's a credit to the visual artists, as well as the actors, that the live action and CGI performances blend so seamlessly, flowing together with a brilliantly curated 1980s soundtrack.
A triumph by any measure, "Ready Player One" is every bit as dazzling and awe-inspiring as Spielberg classics "Jurassic Park" and "E.T." You get the feeling that Spielberg is somehow only picking up steam as he powers into the next phase of his career.