Ernest Cline’s dystopian pop-culture phenomenon was destined to be adapted to film from the start. The only question was how to translate such an imaginative and fantastical virtual reality world into a tangible, visual display.

The answer is simple; enlist Steven Spielberg, one of the greatest science-fiction directors of all-time. Granted, he’s been on hiatus from the genre since 2005, but he makes fun sci-fi films, and this is absolutely mind-blowing in its visual indulgence.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in impoverished obscurity in Ohio in a bleak future society in which everyone escapes life by entering the OASIS, an online virtual-reality universe where everything and anything is possible.

When the founder of the universe suddenly dies, a treasure hunt for keys to his kingdom ensues. The winner of the hunt is bequeathed the ultimate power to play God in the OASIS, and will inherit a windfall of cash beyond imagination.

Wade navigates the treasure hunt he’s been preparing for his whole life with his immense wealth of 1980’s pop culture knowledge.

Steven Spielberg went on record as saying he thought he was too old to take on a project this culturally iconic. What he failed to realize is that he’s a cultural icon himself, and this film drags him tooth and nail back to his roots — science-fiction. There are noticeable Spielbergisms embedded in the film, mostly in the form of the playful mood and nonchalant story arc navigational devices. He spun the tone to a much more optimistic approach than the novel, and you know what? It worked.

I saw this film in 3D, not my typical preference, but I thought this might be appropriate for something like this. I’m not sure it was the best idea as there is so much happening on the screen that it’s hard to keep up at times. You almost have to just sit back and enjoy the ride, although there are tiny details planted everywhere on the screen that activate the deepest recesses of ADD in anyone watching. It’s captivating, and at almost 2 1/2 hours, it’s epic and exhausting —but in a good way.

The film itself is beautiful, but the world takes some time to warm up to the senses. It’s almost as if you’re putting on the haptic suits and VR goggles yourself, and you have to orient yourself in this new overwhelming universe. I can see why post-production must have been a visual effects artist’s biggest fantasy and worst nightmare at the same time. Much like 2008’s “Avatar,” the film takes place primarily in this alternative universe that transcends the typical rules of physics and sometimes logic. It’s mesmerizing, but manages to stay grounded, conveying an almost realistic vibe.

The novel. I’ve read the novel maybe five times over the years, as a read-aloud to my students, and due to my own 1980’s pop-culture fandom and curiosity. Those expecting a recreation of the novel will be severely disappointed — and pleasantly surprised.

Let me explain.

The novel is impossible to adapt due to the sheer enormity of the universe, but also due to the absurd number of copyright, licensing and branding rights of all the items referenced in the book. Warner Bros. has a pretty impressive library itself, so there are new additions of King Kong, “The Shining,” Batman, and a plethora of lesser known, but recognizable characters that will make you giddy (Chucky was a nice touch). This required a rewrite of the plot, which Zak Penn (several superhero films) and Ernest Cline did very admirably.

It truly felt like I was watching a revisionist version of the novel with very familiar characters, themes and references, but the newness made it exciting and fresh. The acting is fine; mostly motion capture, but strong performances by Mark Rylance and Ben Mendelsohn as the genius billionaire recluse and egomaniacal antagonist, respectively.

Overall, Spielberg did a better job than I expected, and the film exceeded my expectations simply because it strayed from the source material enough, but not too much. Great, entertaining film, but I would recommend reading the book first.