Ready Player One

I think I should start with something significant that should be kept in mind here. I hate the book Ready Player One. Hate it hate it hate it hate it hate it. I think it’s the worst example of Geeks-will-rule-the-world-one-day-so-take-that-high-school-bullies I’ve ever had the misfortune to come into contact with (and that’s only because I haven’t read Armada, which even the Ready Player One fans hate, so I can’t even imagine how terrible it is). It’s a series of lists all written with the smugness that you would expect from someone showing off their pop culture bona fides, and none of the awareness that he sounds like a tool.

But here’s the thing. The idea behind Ready Player One, or at least the very stripped down essence of the idea, is a pretty good one. A The Westing Game style scavenger hunt set in an online world people escape to in order to avoid the dystopia the real world has become has some real promise. But in practice and on the page, it fails so spectacularly that the whole concept retroactively becomes sour in my mouth even if its foundation is solid. So even though I can’t stand the source material, Ready Player One is just the sort of book that could end up being adapted very well, stripping out the over-reliance on pop culture, or at the very least turning those infuriating lists of things into background flavor that doesn’t put a neon sign around itself bragging about how cool it is that he knows about this stuff. Whether Steven Spielberg would be a good fit for that vision is an interesting question. He’s got the eye for spectacle and the imagination to bring an online world to life, but he also could be too close to the pop culture that the book loves to be able to balance the tone without devolving into navel gazing. And considering the book did some navel gazing about Spielberg, it's a legitimate worry to have.

I missed Ready Player One in the theaters (shockingly, I did not go out of my way to see it), but found myself trapped on a six hour flight from Los Angeles to Boston with a decently sized screen in front of me (thanks, JetBlue) and the film available for free. So why not give it a shot?

The first thing you notice about the film version of Ready Player One is how much more natural it feels than Cline’s stilted prose (notably, Cline is one of the two screenwriters, alongside Zak Penn). "Show, don’t tell" is an old adage in Hollywood (and visual media in general), and that aspect of the adaptation is a huge improvement. Yes, a lot of the dialogue is still corny as hell. Yes, there's still too much narrative exposition. But at least it’s not all you’re forced to rely on.

Another improvement is the characterization of Halliday, played by recent Spielberg favorite (and international treasure) Mark Rylance. Rylance's Halliday is the overgrown child he should be but wasn’t entirely permitted to be in the book. Book Halliday is a reclusive genius, a Howard Hughes-esque leader of men who became the most beloved figure in the world. In the film, Rylance plays him as a soft-spoken, meek and awkward shut-in who may be more than a little bit on the spectrum. To me, it’s the ultimate undercutting of the hagiography that was so off-putting in the book. He’s not some titan of industry, just a nerd who likes video games. I think that stripping down of the character really helps balance (and perhaps pointedly undercut) all the mania that surrounds him.

Generally, the cases where you might assume the move to a visual medium would improve the text prove instructional. The book went deep on the challenges needed to complete, requiring competitors to find three keys, each requiring a mix of challenges, and then unlock gates with those keys that require even more challenges to overcome. The movie cuts out the gates and shrewdly changes the challenges to make them far more grokkable on the big screen. And it jumps right into things, with main character Wade (aka Parzival, as played by Tye Sheridan) taking on the initial challenge with what is essentially his first action within OASIS in the movie. The CG paradise that is OASIS, with all characters in their avatar modes and voiced by the actual actors, generally holds up pretty well, and the surreality of it is essential for making you buy into the metric ton of pop culture references in the background of pretty much every scene.

And yes, there are a litany of references anywhere the eye could look. Many of them are in keeping with what you would expect from the book (released in 2011), but Spielberg and co. has also recognized that the pop culture world has continued to revolve since then and has at least somewhat kept up with the times (you’d imagine Activision/Blizzard cut a pretty hefty check to get Overwatch's Tracer into this movie with the regularity that she is). It’s safe to assume that if Ready Player One were still in production, Fortnite dances would be everywhere. It’s definitely easier to handle than it is on the page, but there’s still a surface level vapidity to it all, never really progressing beyond “Oh cool, Battletoads!” in wide shots. And there are definitely cases where those in the movie clearly don’t understand what they’re using or referencing beyond its status as a reference. The most egregious case involves Wade’s best friend Aech building a full-size replica of The Iron Giant for the express purpose of using it as a weapon in the third act final battle. You’d think that people so steeped in the culture and supposedly so reverent of these objects might balk at the idea of that, considering the entire point of the movie was the giant’s rebellion against being used as a weapon, and just because he was built to be one doesn’t mean that’s his destiny, but hey, big cool robot smashing stuff. am I right folks?

And that’s where this movie version of Ready Player One misses the mark. It’s clear that Spielberg is a little wary of the world he’s created here, that OASIS isn’t the end all be all of the world and the cult of Halliday searching for the Easter Egg are more about recreating the things someone else loved than actually making independent decisions of what to love and why on their own. It would have been easy for someone to call out Aech for using The Iron Giant as a weapon in direct violation of the tenets of the movie it came from, but the movie never follows through on any of it. It raises the question between the lines, but doesn’t bother to push those questions to the forefront. I’m sure it’s easy to watch the movie and not take any of that into account, basking in all the video game callbacks and 1980s nostalgia,

There are cases where that slavish devotion to the form really pays off, though. Perhaps the most buzzed about sequence in the film upon its release is the hunt’s second challenge, a bit of puzzle adventuring inside some meticulously recreated sequences from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It’s surreal as hell, an acute case of uncanny valley syndrome as these computer creations cavort around the blood elevator and the twins and the woman from room 237. It's a massive improvement over the book's challenges that revolve around reciting scripts from movies (a well Cline inexplicably goes to multiple times), giving it life in the way the prose never could. I don’t know how Spielberg recreated both the look and feel of Kubrick’s Overlook, but it’s a jaw-dropping sequence. Granted, the backdrop for all of this (The Shining was the movie Halliday took a woman on a date with, and to his dying day he was hung up on the fact that he didn’t try to kiss her) is dumb as hell and a symptom of the underlying problems with the movie, its source material and the culture from which it spawned, but hey, you take the wins where you can find them.

There’s a way you can make a story like Ready Player One work. It involves the realization that all of this hero worship is rotten to the core, and that the right thing to do is press the big red button, blow it all to hell and start over. We don’t need to live in the shadow of the past, and we definitely don’t need to revel in it like it’s the only thing worthy of our time and investment. And I think that the film version of Ready Player One flirts with this idea. The finale of the film takes place in a perfect recreation of Halliday’s childhood bedroom, complete with child Halliday playing his games and escaping the world. Wade treats it like some awe-inspiring vision, but the film treats it like a hermetically sealed tomb.

Granted, this could be my hatred for the world Cline built coming through, but to me the clear implication of that scene is that Wade should end OASIS and bring the world back into reality. The OASIS has become a prison, a cushion from the harsh realities of the world in a way that has not only outlived its usefulness, but become a danger to itself and everyone and everything in it. Hell, entire corporations of evil people exist to exploit it via a new paradigm of indentured servitude (Ben Mendelsohn is the second saving grace of this one, which shouldn’t come as a surprise). Maybe (just maybe) that’s against the “hey, let’s all just have some fun playing cool video games” vibe you get from Halliday. But instead, in a rather rushed epilogue (which totally makes sense because we’re already two hours and ten plus minutes into a movie that’s already worn its welcome thin), everything’s copacetic because the evil corporation was shut down and there's no more indentured servitude and you have to spend Tuesdays and Thursdays in the real world. It’s a bandage over the real problem, one that the movie seems to care enough about to make note of, but doesn’t care one iota about exploring.

It is possible that there could be a sequel that comes out some day and finally explores the rot at the center of OASIS, how even the “real fans” can’t make it work when they’re in control, but I’m skeptical we’ll see that any time soon, or be particularly expectant that they would follow through. As such, the film Ready Player One is so much more palatable than the book, but can’t pull itself out of its gravitational pull.