Steven Spielberg’s last big sci-fi film was War of the Worlds in 2005. Since then, his forays into genre films – The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and The BFG (2016) – have been underwhelming. The same can’t be said of his latest: Ready Player One is overwhelming.

Spielberg directing an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s homage to 1980s pop culture is a match made in geek heaven, given the director created much of what is lovingly referenced in the novel. However, fans of the book should be forewarned that there have been some major changes to the narrative structure and quests, not to mention less investment in the character ensemble. The former often works to the film’s advantage, while the latter proves detrimental.

Set in a dystopian future of 2045, society has forsaken the real world for the limitless possibilities of a virtual one: the OASIS. Created by eighties-obsessed tech guru James Halliday (Mark Rylance, nerding up in a blonde wig and Space Invaders t-shirt), this online utopia is a melting pot of the movies, games and music of the era. When Halliday dies, he leaves behind an irresistible challenge: whoever finds an Easter Egg he’s hidden deep inside the OASIS will inherit his fortune and control this virtual world. 

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The race is on, led by teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), AKA Parzival, and his OASIS avatar pals Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech, who must navigate what is essentially a massive multiplayer online game. Also determined to get the egg is corporate evil IOI (Innovative Online Industries), led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who sees the quest as a war for control of the future.

 You’ll know exactly the ride you’re in for following a dizzying freeway race; the players dodging wrecking balls, Jurassic Park‘s T-rex and a loping King Kong.

It’s an exhilarating sequence that sets the tone for a dazzling celebration of geek culture, where the Iron Giant vs. Mechagodzilla, Excalibur‘s Charm of Making is invoked, Back to the Future‘s DeLorean is the vehicle of choice, and the soundtrack pumps with Van Halen, New Order and Twisted Sister.

This cinematic theme park ride through eighties nostalgia is the perfect playground for Spielberg, who appears to have embraced mo-cap technology and wields it in new and inventive ways. The effect is sometimes akin to being sat in front of a video game without the controller, but alternating between the real and virtual worlds prevents the movie from becoming a big CG-eyesore.

Ready Player One‘s greatest strength is its appeal to both young and old, delivering a massive nostalgia rush for adults and hitting all the right buttons for the PlayStation generation. Just don’t expect the book.

In cinemas: March 29, 2018
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn
Directed by: Steven Spielberg