Jan 16, 2020
Ready Player One (2018)
When Ready Player One came out back in April, I went on a bit of a rant in that month’s box office predictions about how much I hated the novel. I admit this might make me a less than ideal candidate to review the movie. However, I’m of the opinion that books are supposed to be books and movies are supposed to be movies, and judging a movie adaptation by its book in any way is a fool’s errand, and on that note I’m going to review Ready Player One as if no book by that title had ever existed. Which is an easier task than it sounds, given the many liberties taken with the plotline; plus, as it turns out, adapting this property into a movie offers two distinct advantages.
One, you can’t cram nearly as many references and trivia digressions into a movie as you can into a book. Two, Wade Watts’s characterization benefits greatly from not constantly being able to hear his internal monologue.
Nevertheless, we have to talk about the book just a little, because the biggest missed opportunity therein turns into the biggest missed opportunity in the movie. Part of the reason I was so disappointed in the novel was that its premise sounded like satire. A fully-immersive VR geek paradise populated by ’80s cartoon characters and superheroes, under threat from corporate poseurs wanting to appropriate geek culture for their own agenda, and a lonely teen boy whose obsessive fandom and superhuman trivia acumen saves the world? How could such an on-the-nose wish fulfillment fantasy be anything except a send-up? But the premise was played completely straight, which I guess I should have expected from the author of a heartfelt spoken-word poem lamenting the lack of nerdy girls in porn movies.
Ready Player One, the movie, had a chance to capitalize on this. It could have gone the route of Starship Troopers, and skewered the novel’s self-serious tone and mocked the very worldview the novel earnestly proscribes (a lot of hay could have been made of the fact that securing the rights to the literal hundreds of characters portrayed in the movie wouldn’t have been possible without the resources of exactly the kind of massive megaconglomerate that the movie casts as the villain). A couple of absurd-sounding lines in the opening minutes seem to indicate that the movie would be taking this direction (“…after the Corn Syrup Drought, and the Bandwidth Riots…”), but it backs off.
The movie opens in a promising manner, with teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) climbing down the stack of trailers he lives in and saying hello to all his neighbors who are playing in a virtual-reality game called OASIS, which is also what he’s going to do since he doesn’t have any friends or seemingly go to school. It’s a visually arresting and deeply humane sequence that quickly informs us of the movie’s premise, and it’s followed up by over twenty damn minutes of Watts’s voiceover feeding us exposition like we’re idiots. Oh, well.
Watts tells the viewer what we could have guessed: that everybody spends most of their time in OASIS because the real world is so shitty. In OASIS, you can go anywhere, do anything, and be anybody (well, anybody who’s appeared on a Hot Topic t-shirt at some point). The game’s creator is Jack Halliday (Mark Rylance), the nerd version of Willy Wonka who died some years ago, willing his vast fortune and ownership of OASIS to whoever can find three Easter eggs he hid in the game. Wade is one of thousands of egg-hunters (or “gunters”, as they are rather unfortunately called), who obsessively scour Halliday’s biography for trivia that might help them find the eggs. Rival company IOI, which wants to acquire the eggs in order to take over OASIS, has an army of gunters on the case.
Watts is kind of a dud, and a blank schlub template that schlubs can composite themselves into. This is a huge improvement over his novel counterpart, who’s actively repellent. None of the other characters matter very much. Halliday is the real locus of the plot’s machinations, and he’s both the most interesting and the most maddening character the movie has to offer. Rylance (The BFG, Dunkirk) imbues Halliday with such a soft-spoken, guileless, absent-minded mildness that it’s easy to overlook the fact that his whole Easter egg quest is a monument to egomania. He could have committed his fortune to fighting the problems clearly plaguing the world, and instead he’d rather crown the King of the Nerds.
To help gunters in their quest, Halliday preserved all his favorite games and movies, diaries, and digital recreations of nearly every moment of his life in a gigantic library in OASIS. The puzzles that lead to the eggs are impossible to solve without an intimate knowledge of Halliday’s biography. Indeed, Watts and his love interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) initially bond over in-depth Halliday trivia. (“The Shining is Halliday’s eleventh favorite horror movie” is one of many groaners of this type.) What kind of narcissist does this?
The contradictions in Halliday’s character aren’t necessarily a drawback, nor, I would argue, are they unintentional. My issue is that this kind of complexity could have been mined for some meaty thematic material (or again, some pretty incisive satire), but instead they play out at face value and thereby undercut the themes the movie actually wants us to absorb. Ready Player One puts forth the explicit message that you should live in the real world and not shy away from human connections—and then it rewards its characters for spending years in a simulated reality and idolizing a dead man. It tries to tell us that Halliday suffered for his tendency to live in the past and wallow in nostalgia, and yet the world is saved by doing exactly that. IOI are supposed to be the evil guys because they want to remake OASIS in their own image, but is it really any better for Halliday to leave the company to someone who thinks exactly like him and wouldn’t ever do anything he wouldn’t do?
But enough of that boring thinky crap; is the movie pretty to look at? On this note I can answer a resounding yes. Nearly every shot that takes place in OASIS is stuffed to bursting with beautifully rendered pop-culture eye-candy. It’s really remarkable that Steven Spielberg, a man in his seventies who’s never expressed any particular interest in video games, managed to faithfully recreate the experience of playing a bonkers-ass adrenaline-charged game. Major action setpieces include a massive street race in a constantly-shifting Manhattan cityscape beset by huge wrecking balls, fire, and dinosaurs; and a huge bloody siege on Planet Doom that culminates in the Iron Giant fighting Mechagodzilla.
These scenes are super cool, and Spielberg’s steady directorial hand keeps these scenes from devolving into headache-inducing nonsense like so many modern CG-heavy action sequences. But the animation keeps up its visual appeal even when there’s no frenetic action going on, and the character’s mo-cap avatars are mercifully tweaked and exaggerated to the point where there’s no Uncanny Valley creep factor (with the notable exception of Art3mis).
I know I keep talking about the novel when I said I wasn’t going to, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much better Ready Player One’s pop-culture hyper-referentiality works in a visual context. I found it refreshing that I could just watch a bunch of Deadites, or see the motorcycle from Akira appear onscreen for a fleeting second, and not have to endure two paragraphs of Ernest Cline’s breathlessly pedantic prose explaining the reference. After a while, I loosened up and had fun by trying to see how many characters I could identify in a single shot.
And it was that experience that made me soften up and adjust my expectations. You may be disappointed that Ready Player One doesn’t have much to say—I sure am—but you’ve got to credit it for having its finger on its audience’s pulse. The film is more interested in exploring video games or pop culture than it is in making your inner ten-year-old squeal, and you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.