Although the many story changes might be hard for book purists to accept, Steven Spielberg has lovingly captured the zeitgeist of '80s nostalgia in this adventure. Plus, he brings his own spectacular style to the visuals. Those expecting a faithful or pure adaptation should prepare themselves for key departures from the novel; some of the changes are understandable, while others are initially a bit disappointing. The first challenge is completely different; there's no high school, Oklahoma, Joust, WarGames, or Rush; and the High Five's meeting/collaboration is completely sped up (and that's just a few of the changes). Of course, screenwriters Zak Penn and Cline couldn't depict all of Parzival's '80s trivia-dropping, game playing, and theory-obsessing in the film -- what works on paper doesn't always translate to the screen. What is on screen is pure Spielberg: an epic quest, young people banding together, and a love of the decade when he himself (as well as fellow filmmakers like Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron) reigned supreme in popular culture. The movie, like Halliday's hunt, is filled with Easter eggs for movie buffs and nostalgic enthusiasts. Multiple viewings may be in order to catch them all, because some are fleeting, while others are more overt. (Chances are if the audience is laughing and you aren't, you just missed a visual tribute to an '80s movie, fictional character, cartoon, or game.)
The movie is most impressive when the action is taking place in the Oasis. Spielberg immerses viewers in the sort of virtual reality it would be easy to get lost in, particularly when real life is so bleak. And that, if there's one thing that keeps a very good movie from being extraordinary, is the problem. The virtual scenes dazzle and inspire, while the real-world plot is slightly less interesting. An action sequence between geared-up avatars inside a game is naturally more colorful and imaginative than the grim reality of car chases and debtors' prison. The actors all do a fine job with their roles, even though two of them are far off the ages of their book counterparts. Cooke (who was so wonderful in Thoroughbreds) is believably passionate, if for some reason not quite as much of a genius as she is in the book ("book Art3mis" is even smarter about all things Halliday than Parzival). Rylance (who's become one of Spielberg's most frequent collaborators) is excellent as the nearly mythical Halliday, and Ben Mendelsohn is perfectly smarmy as IOI's greedy (and evil) executive, Nolan Sorrento. Alan Silvestri's score, along with the many '80s jams, is wholly evocative of the decade -- which is only to be expected, considering that his previous scores include the Back to the Future trilogy, which is heavily referenced in this film. Considering the Herculean task of translating Cline's epic novel onto the screen, Spielberg has kept the wonder and the nostalgia; ultimately's that's what will enchant viewers.