"Ready Player One" is a Trojan horse twice over.
While on the surface, this futuristic film is a celebration of gamers, gaming and the pleasures to be found in immersive virtual reality, underlying it all is a heartfelt brief for abandoning all screens and enjoying the satisfactions of the real world.
Similarly, though director Steven Spielberg and his crack team have seen to it that the visual surface contains as much head-spinning, hypermodern razzle dazzle as the law allows, what carries the day here is the kind of old-fashioned sweetness and sentiment that have been part of Spielberg's films, not to mention cinema itself, since the start.
This unlikely combination of old-school Spielberg with trendy technology eventually takes hold, but the film's complicated plot and busy visuals take some getting used to.
While always clear in its broad outlines of young heroes battling to save the best thing in the universe from the worst people in the world, "Ready Player's" plot and setting specifics are so elaborate they can be tough to follow in detail early on.
And the film's digital effects, so labor intensive that Spielberg was able to start and finish "The Post" while they were being fine-tuned, create an initial feeling that unless you are a hardcore gamer this will be a movie easier to admire than to love.
All those complications come courtesy of the best-selling 2011 novel by Ernest Cline (so filled with 1980s pop culture references that science fiction writer John Scalzi famously called it a "nerdgasm") that has been written for the screen by the author and Marvel adaptation veteran Zak Penn.
Spielberg had so much confidence in this story he didn't worry about filling it with big acting names, wisely selecting the likable Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke as his leads and backing them up with veterans like Ben Mendelsohn and, in his third recent Spielberg film, the protean Mark Rylance.
"Ready Player One" is set in Columbus, Ohio, in the year 2045, where things are so seriously dystopian that people count themselves lucky to live in teetering vertical towers of trailer homes know as "the stacks."
With daily life hopeless, the escape of choice is OASIS, a super-seductive virtual reality universe where, says our teenage guide Wade Watts (Sheridan), the only limits to who you can be and what you can do is your imagination. (To emphasize the difference between real and unreal, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shot OASIS digitally, the physical world with film.)
No one would dare enter OASIS as themselves, everyone chooses an avatar to represent them, and studious, glasses-wearing Wade's is Parzival, a bleached-blonde hipster with serious anime cred.
Parzival's best friend in OASIS (who Wade has never met in real life) is Aech (Lena Waithe), a Hulk-sized behemoth who can fix anything and is building a full-sized replica of the Iron Giant in the shop.
The shy genius who dreamed up OASIS was ultimate nerd James Halliday (Rylance at his most distracted), a man who found the real world hard to cope with and left a very specific, very lucrative puzzle behind when he died five years earlier in 2040.
Echoing fairy tales past, Halliday presented the OASIS world with three challenges, each leading to a key which together unlocked a chance to find a hidden-away secret, known in the gaming world as an Easter egg. Find the egg and inherit OASIS, aka "the world's most important economic engine."
It goes without saying that a small army of egg hunters, known as gunters for short, seeks to solve these puzzles, but a wild and crazy race through a virtual Manhattan that's the journey's first step has been made almost impossible by a VR King Kong and other monsters.
It's at the race that Parzival first sees Art3mis (Cooke), an online crush of his, who drives Kaneda's bike from "Akira" while Parzival favors a vintage DeLorean from "Back to the Future." (The film's popular culture visual references are frankly endless.) He's immediately smitten, but Art3mis, at least initially, has other things on her mind.
We also find out early on about IOI, Innovative Online Industries, a prototypical evil corporation run by Nolan Sorrento (Mendelsohn, less menacing than in "Animal Kingdom" or "Bloodline"), who wants to control OASIS so he can ruinously commercialize it.
Though OASIS has been impressively imagined in dazzling detail by production designer Adam Stockhausen, these kinds of bells and whistles have a lasting impact only if you are a bells and whistles kind of person.
It's the attraction Parzival feels for Art3mis that has the most staying power, less flashy though it is. Yes, it has undeniably hokey elements, and it doesn't qualify as one of the great love stories of the age, but it carries the film's theme and is a key part of the glue that makes us want to keep watching.
Though it likely would not have been made so effectively without him, it's frankly not necessarily to "Ready Player One's" advantage to think of it as a Steven Spielberg event film. Its plot is complexity itself, but its "kids save the world" soul is simple and earnest as opposed to earth shattering. With apologies to Bill and Ted, it's an excellent adventure, and let's leave it at that.
'Ready Player One'
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Playing: In general release