The answer, as usual, depends heavily on what criteria you’re basing it on. Ready Player One is the same basic story – The year is 2045 and people are immersed in a virtual reality universe called the OASIS. James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the creator of OASIS has passed away and left his inheritance in an easter egg hidden in the VR world, which can be found only through a series of three quests. A lifelong fan and player Watts (Tye Sheridan) stumbles upon the first clue to the quest and finds himself in a race for his life and for humanity to unlock the keys to the worldwide scavenger hunt.
Ready Player One is a romp back into Spielberg’s sweet spot of an adventure story. Riddled with cameos and pop references that completely litter the screen, there are battles and arenas that beg for a slow-motion replay just to catch all of them. Spielberg does so well with the kids vs the world story (like E.T. of course), and Ready Player One suffers a bit as that because it fails to juggle its adult themes as well as it does the former. We never get a good sense of the danger, the sinister corporate grasp, or the true need for an escape from dystopian future. Every step is a little too easy. The opening which shows towering monoliths of the future’s evolution of trailer parks is a balance of humor and a reality that borders closely on what could be that the rest of the film never quite achieves again.
Although the basic scavenger hunt remains the same with most of the same characters, the story’s intent and most of its main plot points differ. The quests are different, and although filming pragmatism probably forced Spielberg’s hand, it is still a disappointment to see how the overall hunt has completely changed. Furthermore, the answers to the riddles aren’t dependent on the hours of knowledge-building or skill-building that Wade and his fellow nerds have accrued for this quest. Because we also don’t get as much time or character-building with any of the players, we come to care for them less than we should.
Strangely, Spielberg’s movie moments in Ready Player One teeter a little too saccharine here, so much so that some scenes feel forced and unbelievable. This is not to undermine the cast, all of which are likable and winning in their roles. It's something to be said for both technology and the actors' abilities that their personalities are able to come through even when they're being represented by their CG avatars.
Is it a good standalone movie? It is worth seeing, for certain. Spielberg plots an adventure story so well and his pacing is tight and unmatched. And for a movie that could be overwhelmed by the hundreds of small characters (everything from Hello Kitty to Freddy Krueger), he does a good job of focusing the action on the screen. It’s definitely a movie that is worth seeing on the biggest screen possible and there’s a sense of love that sheds gimmick. And above all else, it’s fun. The middle quest, in particular, is a highlight that really emphasizes a combination of nostalgia and glee.
And nostalgic glee is the takeaway factor here. At the end of the day, the question is whether Spielberg has made a good adventure movie and not necessarily a good 80s tribute film. When a film like this can accomplish what it does without seeming like a greatest hits album, it’s accomplished its goal as a good story. Whether that story is the same as its source material is another question, but could also be besides the point.