“A fanboy knows a hater.”
Ernest Cline’s nostalgia-laced fantasy adventure novel Ready Player One is neither as good nor as bad as you’ve heard. A pulpy-yet-frivolous, expansive-yet-shortsighted pop culture-heavy debut book is a love letter to fandom — and specifically nerdom — in all its messy, hyperbolic, hyperactive, voracious and overzealous glory. It’s also pretty problematic, as you can imagine, and it isn’t without its shortcomings. But it’s best seen as a terrific outline for a really fun movie. As a screenwriter-turned-novelist, there’s the undeniable sense that Ready Player One was always assuredly imagined as big, gigantic feature film. Writing it as a novel was merely a means to an end, a chance for the first-time author to prove his mettle.
That Ernest Cline scored Steven Spielberg to direct the movie must’ve felt as good as when Charlie Bucket unwrapped the golden ticket from the Wonka bar in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — the possibility to see it all, to live out your greatest dreams that once seemed beyond the furthest grasps of your imagination. Comparisons between the two are intentional, and the rich irony of the promotional materials fondly playing “Pure Imagination” while hundreds-upon-thousands of instantly recognizable IP characters walk, run, jump, punch, kick and fly across the screen shouldn’t be lost. But it’s Ernest Cline’s golden moment. The opportunity to see the broadest scopes of his passions and his loves brought to life in the biggest, most luxurious way possible — on the largest screens in the world, all around the world. It’s a dream come true, truly. That’s what makes the film’s somewhat middling execution a little heartbreaking.
Ernest Cline’s passion-driven, property-colliding (intentional-or-not) commentary on Internet culture (and the toxic attributes found within) is given the blockbuster treatment with Steven Spielberg in pure action-adventure mode. The results should be dazzling and spellbinding at every turn, and there are certainly visually remarkable sequences found throughout the legendary and masterful filmmaker’s latest project. Spielberg can stage a scene like few other filmmakers in the biz. But there’s an odd — and deeply troubling — emptiness to Ready Player One in its film presentation. Spielberg’s Ready Player One doesn’t capture that same exuberant enchantment found in Cline’s derivative-yet-inspired 2011 novel. The result is a humungous cinematic spectacle that’s well-made, certainly, and briskly told, absolutely, that never captures the same heart and pride found in Cline’s clumsy-but-fervently written tribute to all things intoxicatingly geeky. Seen as disposable entertainment made for the biggest screens with a bunch of familiar properties littered throughout, it’s entirely pleasing stuff. But this nostalgia-loving futuristic tale never escapes the conventional storytelling traits that hold it back, nor does it offer enough new material to elevate it into a new-age classic. As escapist entertainment to kill two+ hours, though, it’s worth your coin.
The year is 2044. The world’s natural resources are depleting. The environment has taken a huge nosedive. The outside world is digressing, so everyone turns to the Oasis. Invented by the reclusive genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance), an inventor bigger than Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk combined, the Oasis is a virtual reality simulator unlike any other known to man. Offering people around the planet, rich and poor, the chance to enter a galaxy beyond their wildest imagination, the Oasis is where everyone lives to escape the horrors of the world around them. They can become anything and everything they could ever imagine — including various famous characters and icons. People don’t live in the real world anymore; instead, the world lives inside the Oasis. And when Halliday tragically dies, the Oasis becomes the haven for his Easter Egg. The first person to find it receives his billions and billions of dollars in good fortunes. The finder also gets the chance to gain control of the Oasis once-and-for-all, which sweetens the pot. This results in Anorak’s Quest — since Anoark was Halliday’s avatar name — and the players must embark on a scavenger hunt to find the hidden clues that’ll direct them to the grand treasures that lay inside the game. After years of no luck, most people quit the challenge. But those who stick with it are known as gunters.
The gunters try to find the clues, but to no avail. That changes when Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), known in the Oasis as Parzival, discovers the first key that’ll direct him towards Halliday’s massive inheritance, making him the first person ever to land on the scoreboard. He, of course, becomes a superstar overnight. And it directs Pazival to the attention of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the head of IOI who is trying to find the Easter Egg to gain complete control of the Oasis. Nolan will stop at nothing to win the Easter Egg, and he will kill his way to the top of the chain. Thankfully, Wade is joined by fellow gunters Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaski) and Sho (Philip Zhao), and the young fortune finders will undertake a quest throughout the vast lands of the Oasis in order to win Halliday’s high score.
It’s surprising (and concerning) that the well-envisioned world of the Oasis isn’t visually enticing in its film presentation. Colors are dulled and muted in the CG environment, rarely making the viewer want to explore and engage in its digitalized 3D wonderments. Instead, it’s often the real world segments that prove to be more thrilling and invigorating to watch. Perhaps Spielberg did this intentionally, to make us more invested in the human segments and to add to its ultimate message of valuing humanity? It’s possible. Considering how most of Ready Player One is placed in the Oasis, however, that seems unlikely. The special effects are good, to be clear, and the scope of the grand Oasis is vast and epic, without question. But it’s hard to get enriched when you’re not completely allured by what you’re watching. It doesn’t help that it feels cold and sterile. Yeah, the world of the Oasis is a fantasy, but you should be immersed. You should be dazzled and in wonder. Spielberg’s vision of the Oasis is strangely (and disappointingly) lacking.
There are exceptions, of course. A spellbinding chase sequence in the first quarter of Ready Player One, one that involves King Kong and a T-Rex, is a treasure trove of cameos and cinematic delights. It’s quite possibly the most bewitching sequence here, and it’s a shame that it has to come so early into the picture. It is also worth noting, there’s a recreation scene involving one of Stanley Kubrick’s most famous works that you kinda need to see to believe. It’s not quite amazing, but it’s incredible that Spielberg pulled it off. But beyond that, Ready Player One doesn’t often capture the building excitement found inside Cline’s book.
For all its many faults, Ernest Cline’s book really captured the geeky enthusiasm of its characters. Knock it all you want (plenty of people already have…), but there was something endearingly enchanting about its fandom and appreciation for the characters it thrust into the narrative’s formulaic journey. In the movie, however, that feels telegraphed — even phoned in at times. Not to say that Steven Spielberg wasn’t passionate — or nostalgic, or fond — about the characters and environments seen on-screen, but it doesn’t hold the same weight or share the same giddiness. Ready Player One, the movie, is strangely and unfortunately kinda cynical in its cameos and references. Nothing about those callbacks feel especially authentic. That’s telling (and striking) when the story is arguing between the value of reality vs. fantasy.
Ernest Cline’s book is at its best when it builds the world of the Oasis. In contrast, however, Ready Player One‘s film adaptation is at its best when it focuses on the humanity found and lost outside of it, something Cline could never quite crack within his original source material. Spielberg’s newest film is typically at its strongest during its live action segments. The moments with real flesh-and-blood people are what invite us in the most, well beyond the hundreds of millions spent bringing the wide universe of the Oasis onto the screen. Spielberg knows better than anyone that humanity is what makes us care about the movies, not merely the special effects and all the flashy action beats. Surprisingly, Ready Player One often makes you want to spend more time in the real world than in the Oasis, and the movie’s best moments are found towards the end, when we are spend less and less time inside the CG confinements of the Oasis. That’s when Spielberg’s cinematic magic gets to shine. While it does help to save the film, it comes a bit too late.
By Spielberg’s usual standards, Ready Player One is underwhelming. The writing seems to be the biggest hindrance — and I’m mainly referring to the screenplay, not the source material. Adapted to the screen by Zak Penn and Cline himself, Ready Player One feels shallow and weirdly half-hearted. The commentary that was found within the book — whether Cline intended it to or not — about online geek culture and the dangers of toxic masculinity are not as rich and developed as they are in the book. It feels a bit superficial. The message is a familiar one, and it’s told in a fairly perfunctory fashion. At its heart, Cline’s book was a pretty average one, but considering the wonders Spielberg did with the source material to Jaws, you would hope that he would bring out the inner richness of the book to beautifully evocative results. But he doesn’t.
Ready Player One has its strengths. Mark Rylance is excellent as James Halliday, and the actor plays the character’s Asperger’s Syndrome in a way that’s not demeaning or sterotypical — for the most part. Olivia Cooke is simply a delight, and she’s truly a great star in the making. She is perfectly cast as Art3mis, and the story should be focused on her. Even though she gets more agency in this version than in the book, she is still greatly underused, and it’s a shame that such brilliant casting wasn’t able to reach its full due here. The film is also rarely ever boring. It is always moving at a constant clip, and if anything, it moves too fast. But perhaps that’s to its final advantage. Ready Player One will come and go, like many blockbusters seen this year. The result is a mixed bag, but it’s not one meant to keep a permanent residence in your brain. Once you log out of its digital dystopia, you return to the real world and appreciate all its wonders. And if that’s the ultimate goal of the movie, then it succeeds. But when it comes to translating the scope of Ernest Cline’s broadly envisioned world of imagination, Ready Player One is ultimately pretty restricted.