Of all the influences crashing around in "Ready Player One," none stands out more than "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." So perhaps appropriately, director Steven Spielberg has served up a giant candy store of a movie -- exploding with color, nostalgia, pure fun and plenty of imagination, even if the amusement-park ride lasts a bit too long.
Adapting Ernest Cline's book (from a script credited to Cline and "X-Men" veteran Zak Penn), Spielberg has created a movie squarely targeted at cinephiles, steeped in pop-culture references that are almost too plentiful to absorb in a single viewing. Yet the technical wizardry, and the fact that the story spends much of its time in a virtual-reality plane known as the OASIS, inevitably blunts the emotional investment, in the same way nobody really weeps when Mario loses a life.
Set in 2045, there are obvious parallels to Spielberg's filmography, perhaps most notably the dystopian future of "Minority Report." But the closest kin would actually be Robert Zemeckis' "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" in the mash-up of familiar characters, albeit with next-generation special effects at its disposal. (A nod to Zemeckis within the movie is certainly an appropriate touch.)
There's also an element of the original "Star Wars" in the casting, with a band of youthful heroes augmented by a couple of elder stalwarts -- one (Spielberg regular Mark Rylance) playing the mentor figure, the other (Ben Mendelsohn) cast as the bad guy.
At the center of it all is 18-year-old Wade (Tye Sheridan), who doubles as the movie's narrator. He explains how Rylance's brilliant, mega-rich game inventor James Halliday died, leaving behind the OASIS, and planting three keys within it that will provide whoever discovers them enormous wealth as well as stewardship over this virtual world.
Living in stacked slums in Columbus, Ohio, Wade escapes into the game world, where he finds an assortment of allies with their own colorful (and sometimes misleading) avatars. Their quest, however, faces stiff opposition from IOI, a corporate entity overseen by Sorrento (Mendelsohn), which employs a veritable army of gamers assigned to decipher the clues before Wade and company can beat them to it.
Life inside a videogame has come a long way since "Tron," but the basic template remains much the same. Spielberg does augment the life-and-death aspects of the experience with a fair amount of humor (Lena Waithe and T.J. Miller are a big help in that regard, the latter as Sorrento's mercenary henchman), while incorporating a timely if somewhat contradictory message about turning off our devices long enough to actually enjoy the real world.
There is, admittedly, a whiplash-like quality to the action at times, and at 2 hours and 20 minutes, the climactic encounter -- despite several stirring moments -- becomes a bit bludgeoning before it's "game over."
Still, just as "Ready Player One" moves back and forth between fantasy and reality, it's difficult not to admire the facility with which Spielberg oscillates between this sort of sprawling, popcorn-munching exercise and a character-driven historical drama like "The Post."
Viewed that way, the movie is another demonstration of the director's eclectic tastes and knack for delivering action and escapism, even when he's not quite at the top of his formidable game.
"Ready Player One" premieres March 29 in the U.S. It's rated PG-13.