Ernest Cline’s debut novel seemed an unlikely success. The 45-year-old Austinite poured his obsession with eighties pop culture into a Willy Wonka-like adventure story, in which a teenager in the 2040’s must move through a virtual world full of references to the Stranger Things-era in order to obtain the ultimate prize: the key to a kingdom (and the associated wealth and power) left behind by an aging Mark Zuckerberg figure. Though it wasn’t marketed explicitly as a young adult novel, Ready Player One veers heavily in that direction. And how big of a task would it be to convince an audience of millennials to read something built around references they’re too young to get? Nevertheless, it was an easy, thrilling read. I devoured it in one sitting on an airplane after picking it up on a whim. A few years back, Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff told Texas Monthly that “Cline and I share a brain” in that both of their work digs deep into the stuff of a 1980s middle class American childhood.
And when the movie version was announced, it was clear that Ready Player One had found an audience. Steven Spielberg, the icon of eighties cinema—whose own work is referenced constantly in the novel—signed on as the director. (Cline, after the success of the book, bought himself a Delorean like the one in the Back to the Future movies that Spielberg produced, giving another away in a fan contest in 2012.) Spielberg is the type of director who gets attached to more projects than he actually makes, though, and his recent work (Bridge of Spies, The Papers, Lincoln) has veered much more heavily toward adult historical drama than high-flying fantasy adventure. The Alamo Drafthouse-published movie fan site Birth.Movies.Death had long watched for Spielberg to drop out of the project, even after targeted release dates were announced, noting that it’s not exactly Spielberg’s style to tell a story that pays homage to, er, the greatness of Steven Spielberg.
Unlikely as it may have seemed, though, fans got their first glimpse of Ready Player One at San Diego Comic Con over the weekend.
It’s a real movie, all right, and it looks great. The nature of the plot isn’t spelled out here—it’s an early teaser for a movie due next March—but the aesthetics of the world, the abundance of pop culture references (The Iron Giant! Freddy Krueger! The A*Team‘s van! Marty McFly’s Delorean!), and the every-geek charm of the film’s star, Tye Sheridan, are all on full display here. If you haven’t read Ready Player One, you might be unclear what exactly Sheridan is going to do in this movie, but if all of the eighties-heavy imagery conjures a “oh, hell yeah” feeling in you, then you’re likely sitting in the target demographic. The rest can come later.
The Verge may have described Cline as “the luckiest geek alive” in 2014—after all, whose obsessions regularly turn into a blockbuster career? But the fact that Sheridan—a 20-year-old Elkhart native—was cast as the lead feels more like a more natural trajectory. Sheridan broke out in 2012 co-starring alongside Matthew McConaughey in Jeff Nichols’s Mud after debuting a year earlier in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. It didn’t take long after breaking through in the work of Texas filmmakers before Hollywood came calling for Sheridan. Fox announced in early 2015 that he’d be taking over the role of Cyclops in the X-Men franchise from James Marsden, and he made his debut as the character in last year’s X-Men: Apocalypse. But that was an ensemble role in a film led by James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence. Leading man is a harder gig to score, and Sheridan’s approaching his first opportunity to take on such a role with reverence. He told Variety last year that he thought the film was “going to be a milestone for cinema” in its approach to virtual reality and storytelling, and when telling Collider about his audition, he referred to the director as “Mr. Spielberg” throughout. Classic Texas manners on that guy.
So Ready Player One is the product of a few things coming to fruition in ways that are both unexpected and yet, somehow, inevitable. Spielberg is equipped to tell a story about growing up that digs in to the specificity of Cline’s own childhood obsessions in a way that’s universal enough that the director recognizes them. Yet Sheridan, who was more than a decade away from even being conceived when Back to the Future was released, is set to explore that world on our screens in a few months. Based on our first glance, it’s going to be an exciting thing to watch.