LOS ANGELES — Steven Spielberg aced his test.
“Ready Player One,” a nostalgia-soaked science-fiction adventure that marked a high-wire attempt by Mr. Spielberg, 71, to return to his crowd-pleasing roots, arrived to $53.2 million in ticket sales over the four-day Easter weekend in North America. Overseas audiences chipped in an additional $128 million, with Chinese ticket buyers turning out in particular force.
Those results, boosted by IMAX and other premium-priced, large-format screenings, easily make “Ready Player One” the No. 1 movie in the world. Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow spent at least $155 million to make the movie, which carried more than $100 million in global marketing costs.
Going into the weekend, box office analysts had feared that “Ready Player One” might arrive to as little as $38 million in ticket sales in the United States and Canada. Its stars, Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke, are not household names. Its story line — teenagers in a dystopian future search for treasure inside a virtual-reality world called the Oasis — was exceedingly difficult to explain in marketing materials, especially without resorting to spoilers.
And, as a non-sequel or remake, “Ready Player One” did not have a built-in fan base beyond readers of the 2011 novel by Ernest Cline from which it was adapted.
That essentially left “Ready Player One” resting on Mr. Spielberg’s shoulders, a risky proposition even for a filmmaker of his stature: The original blockbuster king had not delivered a true blockbuster in a decade, not since “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” roared into domestic theaters in the summer of 2008 with $118 million in opening-weekend ticket sales, after adjusting for inflation.
Although Mr. Spielberg has found box office success in recent years with historical dramas like “The Post” and “Bridge of Spies,” his would-be crowd-pleasers, including the motion-capture fantasies “The BFG” and “The Adventures of Tintin,” have been ticket-selling disappointments. Even “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was widely viewed as a misfire; longtime fans loathed the story, leaving that whip-cracking franchise on wobbly footing.
In contrast, “Ready Player One” drew the most positive audience response for any fantasy or science-fiction movie directed by Mr. Spielberg since “Minority Report” in 2005, according to Rotten Tomatoes, which boils down reviews from critics and ticket buyers into “fresh” or “rotten” scores. Critics also gave “Ready Player One” high marks, although some were annoyed by the source material’s reliance on 1980s pop culture.
Paul Dergarabedian, a senior analyst at comScore, noted that ticket-buyer surveys conducted by PostTrak, a service operated by comScore and Screen Engine, showed “really, really high marks” for “Ready Player One” from teenagers and people in their late thirties. “This film has momentum,” he said.
“Ready Player One,” rated PG-13 and produced by a team that included Donald De Line, Kristie Macosko Krieger and Bruce Berman, was the first movie directed by Mr. Spielberg to arrive in the less-competitive spring since “The Sugerland Express” in 1974. Warner had initially scheduled “Ready Player One” for release in December but moved it to a safer spot after Disney unexpectedly dropped “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” on the same winter date.
Mr. Spielberg’s godlike status in Hollywood was cemented long ago. He is, perhaps, the only director (or star) whose career is no longer impacted by ticket sales — good, bad, mediocre. But the robust response to “Ready Player One” is meaningful for him nonetheless. If ticket sales continue to hold up in the weeks ahead — and they should, given school spring breaks — Mr. Spielberg will have given Warner Bros. what it wants most: a new franchise.
Mr. Cline is notably working on a sequel to his novel.
For the weekend in North America, “Tyler Perry’s Acrimony” (Lionsgate) was second, collecting $17 million, a sturdy total for one of Mr. Perry’s movies that does not feature Madea, his gunslinging granny. “Acrimony,” a thriller starring Taraji P. Henson, cost less than $15 million to make.
Third place went to “Black Panther” (Disney), which took in about $11.3 million, for a seven-week domestic total of $650.7 million. “Black Panther” has taken in $1.27 billion worldwide.