Ernest Cline’s book “Ready Player One” was this weird sounding science fiction book I used to hear about here and there. I never read it, in part because I rarely have time to read fiction in general much less novelty books about video games, but the title was clever and as literature of questionable merit goes I’ve certainly heard of dumber sounding ideas and a lot of people seemed to enjoy it. There was, however, something of a backlash to the novel with a lot of people finding it to be total pandering nonsense and I could certainly see how that could be true as well. What I never did was pick up a copy of the book myself to judge because, well, life’s too short. Honestly there was always something that seemed kind of weird about the backlash against the book. Like, if you’re so above this kind of thing why are you even reading this whole nearly 400 page book? Hatewatching sort of makes sense to me in moderation, hate reading does not. Fortunately there is finally a way to get a taste of what Cline was up to without having to be seen lugging around his tome: they’ve adapted it into a major motion picture directed by, implausibly enough, Steven Spielberg himself.
Ready Player One is set in the year 2045 after a series of calamities society has become something of a shithole where everyone lives in bombed out slums where the only escape is into a video game like virtual reality universe called “The Oasis” where everyone can be what they want to be and engage in mass combat in order to get loot. This world was created by a guy named James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who was a huge geek obsessed with the pop culture of the late 20th Century. After Halliday died it was discovered that he had devised an elaborate scavenger hunt within The Oasis involving three keys that can be found by solving riddles and the prize is that once all the keys are found the entire Oasis is put under the control of whoever finds all three first. One of the people who has been seeking out these keys for years is a teenager named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who plays in the Oasis under the alias “Parzival” and has been obsessively studying the life of James Halliday and the movies and video games that he as so interested in. His search for these “Easter eggs” is bolstered when he encounters another legendary Oasis dweller named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) but if he wants to get all the keys he’ll have to contend with a private army of “sixers” that are deployed by a CEO named Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who wants to claim the prize for his company and thus gain control of the world’s richest company and the center of world culture.
When it was announced early on that Steven Spielberg would be directing an adaptation of “Ready Player One” it certainly seemed like an odd choice to me. Cline’s book seemed like it was very much the manifestation of a Generation X and Millennial conception of culture, of people who grew up on Spielberg’s films rather than Spielberg himself. It’s a project that would make all the sense in the world coming from J.J. Abrams or from the creators of “Stranger Things” but from Spielberg himself? That threw me for a bit of a loop, but it perhaps makes more sense when you remember that Spielberg’s own movies were very much a collection of references themselves. Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, lifts all sorts of shots from the adventure serials of Spielberg’s youth and if you look closely at E.T. or War of the Worlds it becomes abundantly clear they were made by a guy raised on paranoid science fiction movies from the 50s. The difference is that Ready Player One is even more upfront than Tarantino about exactly what it’s lifting and is making the lifts part of the story rather than bending it into a new one. For instance, early on there’s a race of sorts in The Oasis where our hero is driving the DeLorean from Back to the Future, Art3mis appears to be racing one of the hoverbikes from Akira, and they need to race past a T-Rex from Jurassic Park, and find some way to keep from being attacked by King Kong. We have seen these sort of “copyright violation en masse” ideas before, perhaps most notably in Disney’s Wreck-it-Ralph and the ImaginationLand episodes of “South Park,” but never this extensively or at this scale.
It takes a couple of leaps of logic to accept The Oasis as a concept. For example it’s certainly not clear how the economy of the real world works in this future or where all these destitute people get the money to play these video games all day. The death system in The Oasis also seems a bit off. It’s established early on that if you “die” in The Oasis your character does re-spawn but you lose all the stuff you earned along the way, which makes sense given that there does need to be some stakes to the action scenes here, but that seems like quite the penalty. Even the Dark Souls games aren’t that harsh when your character dies. Are we supposed to believe that all these characters have gone for years in all these warzones and haven’t died once? It’s also a little unclear who’s programming all of this. The opening voiceover seems to suggest that you can be whatever you want in this world but the characters can’t exactly conjure things up at will so someone has to be actually creating all this stuff. It’s also a bit curious that these characters are so infatuated with the pop culture of the 80s rather than anything that’s been created since and we never once see Watts step out of the Oasis to watch an actual 2D movie or TV show. There’s this big plot point which suggests that he’s an ace Atari 2600 player, which… I’m old enough to be into some pretty old school video games and even I don’t have the patience to play 2600 games and if I had access to The Oasis I sure as hell wouldn’t take time out of my day to play Pitfall.
Despite all of that, Spielberg does doe a commendable job of bringing The Oasis to life. The inside of The Oasis appears to be entirely CGI with all the characters being represented by avatars. This shouldn’t work and should be highly distracting and yet Spielberg somehow makes it work. The Oasis really does kind of look like a real video game but twenty years in the future and in VR rather than something like The Matrix. It also makes action scenes which would feel absurd in any other context sort of work. Like, that race I was talking about earlier with the T-Rex and King Kong would seem stupid and over-the-top in a movie set in any kind of “real” world, but it fits pretty well in a movie that’s supposed to be a video-game player’s psyche writ large. There’s also a set-piece related to a classic movie midway through the film which I won’t give away but needless to say it’s quite the sight to see and it’s not something you are likely to see much of anywhere else. I’m not going to claim to be above geeking out at some of the parade of references here, some of them certainly caused a visceral reaction when they emerged. It would have been nice if they’d dug even deeper with some of the namedrops but given that this is such an unabashed celebration of low culture even that kind of seems fitting.
The human side of the story is… serviceable. If anything I feel like being “serviceable” is kind of a victory given how easily this gamer wish fulfillment fantasy could have descended into cringey territory. The romance plotline between Watts and Art3mis is certainly kind of groan inducing, especially when Watts declares that he “loves” her based almost entirely on the fact that she’s really good at the film’s central video game. From what I hear this element is even worse in the book but I do think the actors here do a fairly good job of salvaging this sub-plot and keeping it from dragging the film down too far. In general the movie does a pretty good job of finding this nice tone where it doesn’t take itself too seriously but also doesn’t turn the whole thing into such a joke that you aren’t able to really get involved in the story. At the end of the day this is a pretty shallow movie and it certainly doesn’t do nearly as much as it could have to push back on some of the fan-servicey elements of its source material. By the end it seems to suggest that the point of all this is that you should engage in fandom with a degree of moderation and not let it get too much in the way of “real life” but I’m not so sure that the movie that proceeds this moral really supports the thesis. This certainly isn’t a Spielberg classic and I still have trouble really thinking about it as one of his films, but for what it is and what it wants to be I think it’s pretty successful. I certainly had a lot of fun with it anyway.
***1/2 out of Five