READY PLAYER ONE (M)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn
Verdict: A wildly entertaining retro ride. Three and a half stars
FAN boys go head to head with profit-driven Suits in Steven Spielberg's new sci-fi mashup, Ready Player One.
No prizes for guessing who wins.
But the battle for control of a virtual parallel world called the OASIS between pure-of-heart gamers and soulless money men is fierce.
And since the stakes are so high, the action bleeds over into the real world - literally.
Representing pop culture and multiple generations of gamers is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan).
In everyday life, the film's slightly pudgy (by Hollywood standards at least) hero doesn't possess any particularly distinctive characteristics.
His physical demeanour accurately reflects the hours he spends in The OASIS - like most of his counterparts in this apocalyptic vision of the future where the disenfranchised and dispossessed prefer the virtual world to the one they live in (a future that doesn't feel so very far removed from our own.)
Even Wade's avatar, Parzival, an anime-inspired boy man, is characterised more by his innocence and knowledge of pop culture than any particular "superpower" - although he can race a car like a pro and gravity is not an issue.
It's Parzival's virtual mates - badass Art3emis (Olivia Cooke), hulking technomechanic Aech (Lena Wiathe) and ninja warriors Daito and Shoto (Win Morisaki and Philip Zhao) - who provide most of the muscle power.
In the opposing corner of the ring stands Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI).
As the world's largest manufacturer of virtual reality gear, his company clearly has a vested interest in seizing control of The OASIS.
Sorrento's avatar is a beefed up version of himself - complete with chiselled jaw and footballer's shoulders.
What both characters are searching for is the Easter egg hidden by the late The OASIS creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) in a game within the game.
The person who finds it will inherit Halliday's entire fortune - and authority over the alternative world he created.
To solve the clues, a player must get right inside the brilliant man-child's brain - a kaleidoscope of movies, video games and personal regret - in order to rectify his mistakes.
Sorrento has Parzival in his sights from the moment the young gunter (egg hunter) wins the first of the three keys.
The two characters, and their respective forces, lock horns in a race for the ultimate prize.
Ready Player One is a love letter to '80s pop culture, jam packed with references to the likes of Duran Duran, Saturday Night Fever and The Shining - a world the characters enter at one point, with a few zombie "improvements."
Beneath its retro glad rags, however, the story is deceptively layered.
Spielberg and his team have wisely chosen a look that's not too slick - the avatars, for example, are drawn in a way that subtly draws attention to their virtual status.
And this is echoed in the human characters who come across as refreshingly "ordinary" in the new multiplex super-verse.
Ready Player One opens on Thursday.