In 2045, orphaned Ohio teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) competes in virtual-reality realms in Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One,” which debuted at SXSW 2018. (Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.)
Writer/artist

A QUESTION at the center of “Ready Player One,” Steven Spielberg’s three-year project of a blockbuster adaptation: Would the movie experience be like a VR world’s version of “Dunkirk”? In other words: Would the film be a thrill ride of propulsive adventure that chooses rate of speed over depth of character, save for a lone exception played with nuance by the Oscar-winning Mark Rylance?

Well, judging by the early reviews over the weekend out of Austin, where “Ready Player One” had its world premiere at SXSW before it opens in theaters March 29, the verdict is: Spielberg’s latest indeed bears at least some of the same strengths and weaknesses of taut action over textured characters as Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.”

“Rollicking adventure,” says the Hollywood Reporter, hailing how Ernest Cline adapted his best-selling 2011 novel of the same name (aided by Zak Penn) with “the spirit and level-up thrills intact.”

One of the biggest challenges was long perceived to be how to adapt a futuristic tale about an orphaned Ohio teenager, Wade (played by Tye Sheridan), who dons the VR headset as his avatar Parzival to compete in OASIS, or what Variety calls a “techie surrealist theme park of the senses” — all while weaving in the novel’s deep devotion to pop nostalgia.

Who better to create a rich visual world with constant nods to 1970s and ’80s pop culture, then, than a pioneering filmmaker responsible for so much of it?

IndieWire trumpets “Ready Player One” as “Spielberg’s biggest crowd-pleaser in years,” featuring some of the “most viscerally engaging filmmaking” he has ever done.

Variety praises the movie’s visuals as “a coruscating explosion of pop-culture eye candy” with “entrancingly cool” creature cameos. And Slashfilm lauds an “enthralling world” that is mostly sustained.

The pop references are an obsession of OASIS creator James Halliday (Rylance), whom reviews describe as a Steve Jobs-meets-Willy Wonka figure. Slashfilm says the plucking of the pop nostalgia heart strings can be “shallow,” while the accompanying visuals can grow “heavy-handed.”

And what lies beneath the ravishing visuals and pop nods to everything from “Back to the Future” to “The Iron Giant”? That, it seems, is where the first critics are detecting a lack of depth.

” ‘Ready Player One’ never totally fills out what should be the most satisfying part of the story: A David and Goliath tale marinaded in teenage wish fulfillment,” writes CNET. “And what are video games if not a sizable dose of wish fulfillment?”

Or, as Variety says, “The movie has more activity than it does layers.”

Of course, that might be enough to guarantee that Spielberg scores a big spring hit.

After all, even after sound difficulties at the premiere, the SXSW crowd reportedly showered Spielberg with applause and praise.

Here are other reactions out of the Austin debut of “Ready Player One,” which currently has a score of 74 percent certified “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes: