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Ready Player One

When I first read through “Ready Player One”, I thought it was a cute little guilty pleasure. So did a lot of critics at the time. Yes, it was comprised pretty much entirely of pop culture references all smashed together, but the book was always up front about using that as a selling point, so I don’t know what anyone was expecting. And yes, the film was written and plotted on a 6th-grade reading level, but again, it’s not like anyone ever pretended that the book was supposed to be a masterpiece.

It’s a young adult novel written for adults who never grew up. Not great, but there are worse things. And then Gamergate happened.

There was always a kind of seedy underbelly to geek culture, and it got blown wide open in the time since Ernest Cline first published his book all the way back in 2011. All over internet forums and national headlines, we were having this cultural discussion about sexism, harassment, gatekeeping, and an obsession with the past that stubbornly resisted any kind of progressive thought… basically everything in geek culture that was glamorized in Cline’s book. Thus we’ve had a tremendous backlash against the book in recent years, and Cline himself — to put it charitably — has done nothing to make the controversy any easier.

And while all of this was going on, there’s been a film adaptation in development. Thus we have Ready Player One, in which Cline serves as co-writer alongside Zak Penn (late of Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies and a story writer on The Avengers). But of course the real coup was getting Steven Spielberg — whose directing/producing ouvre was referenced multiple times in the book — to direct. These were the filmmakers tasked with making a film adaptation that could deliver on what made the source material fun while also keeping it fresh and palatable for an audience grown disenchanted with the book.

So how did they do? Well… there was only so much they could do with the source material.

For those just tuning in, Ready Player One revolves around the OASIS, an ’80s-infused virtual reality MMORPG that has more or less supplanted the internet. It was created by an eccentric genius named James “Anorak” Halliday (Mark Rylance), who wrote an Easter Egg into the game’s code, concealed by three secret challenges of Halliday’s design. Upon Halliday’s death, it was announced that the first egg hunter (or “gunter”, for short) who found and completed these three challenges would inherit Halliday’s massive fortune and total control of the OASIS.

Five years later, everyone is still obsessively searching for the first clue. Until Wade “Parzival” Watts (Tye Sheridan) finds the first clue and puts himself at the center of a fatal power struggle for control of the OASIS.

Let’s start with the big issue: The central message that dependence on virtual reality is unhealthy and we need to take care of the actual world we have. In the book, this was a perfectly fine message served on a plate of bullshit. The narrator worshipped the OASIS to the point where the message of spending more time in the real world was insincere and came right the fuck out of nowhere.

By contrast, the movie spends a lot more time in the real world. This means that we see a lot more of how shitty everything is and how the main plot affects matters both in and out of the OASIS. Moreover, these characters are far more acutely aware of how finding the Easter Egg wouldn’t just affect things within the OASIS — that kind of money and power could just as easily be used to affect things in the real world (which greatly raises the stakes of the conflict, by the way). We also get a lot more about how everyone is anonymous in the OASIS and nobody can really be trusted, especially when everyone is after the Egg.

What’s even better is that like the book, game over is Game Over in the OASIS. When someone is killed even once in the OASIS, they have to start all over with a completely new avatar. All their XP and items are lost, including the stuff they spent real-world money on and worked for years to attain. And unlike the book, the movie shows us why this is a really fucking stupid business model. We see OASIS gamers go completely off the goddamn rails over losing their avatars, getting violent with others, losing their life savings, and even attempting suicide. Again, this hammers home the message that excessive VR dependence is a bad thing, and raises the stakes of the conflict.

That said, when the ending comes and we learn about the characters’ great idea for getting everyone to pay more attention to the real world… well, I won’t get into spoilers, but it’s really fucking impractical and stupid. There was one guy in my audience who shouted out “Open the source code!” And that still would have been a better idea than what they came up with.

The challenges themselves were another significant change made in adaptation. And I’m not just talking about how the challenges themselves are different, though that does keep the excitement fresh for those who’ve read the book. It’s not like pop culture trivia has been completely jettisoned, of course — there’s a sweet bit of video game history involved, and a tribute to The Shining that’s pitch-perfect right down to the film grain. (I’m sure Spielberg’s well-known admiration of Kubrick was a significant factor in making that sequence, which helps to make it one of the more passionate and enthralling sequences in the whole movie.)

All of that said, the challenges here are much more firmly rooted in Halliday’s personal history — his failed romances, his moments of triumph, his broken friendships, etc. While this undeniably makes for a poor adaptation, it was definitely better for the film as a whole.

In the book, Halliday wanted the OASIS to go to someone who loved ’80s pop culture as much as he did. Which means that Halliday (and Wade, as we come to learn) thinks of ’80s expertise as the measure of a person. The superior geek is the one who knows the most ’80s pop culture ephemera, and anyone who can’t answer the most obscure questions is a poser with no place among the True Geeks. This concept of gatekeeping is hard-wired directly into the premise of the book, and putting the focus on Halliday as a person removes that significantly. Not entirely, because only so much could be done with the source material, but significantly nonetheless.

Plus, this approach is simply a more practical idea. This iteration of the Egg Hunt requires a comprehensive knowledge of the OASIS and retro pop culture trivia, in addition to the mistakes made by Halliday and why those mistakes should not be repeated. It makes perfect sense that Halliday would seek all of these qualities in his successor, far more than ’80s pop culture obsession as the sole qualifying factor. And again, the focus on Halliday’s shattered friendships and romances is done in such a way that it augments the theme of living in reality and only using escapism in moderation.

Though I really didn’t like how the challenges were so much easier. Seriously, with so many dedicated and educated gunters working on this, the first clue shouldn’t have taken five days for someone to figure out, never mind five years.

Getting back to the subject of pop culture references, of course we have a ton of them. As with the book, why is this even a complaint? Who is complaining about this movie as a melange of pop culture references and what the hell did they think they were buying a ticket for? That said, I found the references to be far less effective here than in the book. For every nod that gets a genuine laugh or emotional reaction of some kind, there’s at least six more that are on and off the screen before they even register. And then we have cases like the recurring quarter motif — while it’s still present in the movie, the connection with coin-op arcade games got lost in translation.

It should come as no surprise that the best references are the ones that had the most thought and effort put into them. The Shining sequence is the most obvious example, and there are at least a handful more in the epic climax. My own personal favorite was the showdown between Mechagodzilla and the classic RX-78-2 Gundam — that one had me geeking out HARD.

All of that said, I was surprised to see how many properties were referenced that had nothing to do with the ’80s. That makes sense to an extent — of course the users of the OASIS wouldn’t want their imaginations and passions limited to just the one decade. But when Halliday himself writes King Kong into one of his challenges, I’m left wondering what the hell King Kong has to do with ’80s nostalgia. What I’m trying to say is that when Cline put all this retro pop culture ephemera into his book, he did it in such a way that it showed genuine passion for geek culture of the 1980s. When the filmmakers throw in everything and the kitchen sink, it looks like they’re pandering to as many geeks as possible with as many intellectual properties as they can get clearance for. It’s not the same.

Though I will happily say that the whole movie looks fantastic. This is one of the rare few times when I found myself wishing I had seen this film in 3D. The real world looks suitably grungy and the OASIS looks amazing. I’ve heard a couple of reviews complain about the avatar designs, but I’m not seeing it. I was perfectly fine with the designs for Parzival and Art3mis (aka Samantha Cook, played by Olivia Cooke), and the action scenes were really quite enjoyable to sit through. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the IOI initials, which are made into an omnipresent motif that’s suitably menacing yet void of personality.

But any points I give for the visuals, I have to take right back for the characters. Yes, Wade Watts isn’t nearly the toxic bigoted twerp that he was in the book, but that just means he’s bland and unmemorable as opposed to actively awful. By contrast, while Art3mis is still a perfectly capable female lead, the book version never had to be rescued at any point, so that’s a huge step back. Though at least the movie kept her facial birthmark, I was worried about that. Then we have Aech (Lena Waithe), who’s completely ruined for how hard the filmmakers worked to spoil her secret identity. As for Shoto and Daito (Philip Zhao and Win Morisaki, respectively), they’re just as useless here as in the book, perhaps even more so.

Only two characters really stand out. One of them is James Halliday, mostly because it’s Mark Rylance playing him and the movie did so much to give Halliday more development. The other one is Nolan Sorrento, but only because “villain who’s fun to hate” is something Ben Mendelsohn could play in his sleep at this point. Elsewhere in the supporting cast, TJ Miller sleepwalks through another round of his geeky schtick and Hannah John-Kamen… well, I assume Sofia Boutella had a scheduling conflict and she’s filling in. As for Simon Pegg, he’s a man so totally and unmistakably British that making him play an American was a terrible, terrible mistake (see also: Martin Freeman).

Ultimately, Ready Player One corrects a lot of the source material’s mistakes while taking on plenty of its own. The characters are stock, the plot holes are a mile wide, and most of the references are too fleeting to do much of anything. Yet it works perfectly well as a brainless CGI action spectacle, and the basic theme about VR dependence works well enough — better than it did in the book, at any rate.

When it comes to CGI action spectaculars like this, I have just one question: “Does this movie deliver anything that I couldn’t find anywhere else?” In this case, the answer is “Mechagodzilla vs. the RX-78-2 Gundam with a multimillion-dollar budget.” That’s good enough for a recommendation, but a very tenuous one. Then again, if you’ve seen any of the commercials or trailers, you should already have a pretty accurate idea of what this film can offer and whether you’ll enjoy it.

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