Here’s the key to enjoying Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One: Realize the film’s $175 million budget covered the filmmaking and what rights to various properties they could afford. Were they to include every little detail of the book, the film’s budget would have been at least triple that. So right away, dispel any notion that you’re going to see all of Cline’s intricate blast-from-the-past novel translated to the big screen.
Sure, there are little nods to almost everything which happens in the book, but you’re not going to see Wade Watts/Parzival (Tye Sheridan) act out WarGames and Monty Python and the Holy Grail from a first-person perspective. You won’t be sitting on an ostrich, duking it out with a rival player in a game of Joust. Even though large amounts of the book are sacrificed or changed for narrative and cinematic purposes, the spirit of Cline’s crazed story still lives in every frame.
Think of it, instead, as more of a Cliff’s Notes version, a feature-length “Previously on” recap which starts a lot of television shows. Most of the punchy highlights have been kept, and the intent is still the same. Parzival and the rest of the merry band dubbed “The High Five” race against an evil corporation in a search for the ultimate Easter Egg: ownership of the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation (OASIS for short) and its deceased creator’s fortune. The story’s nothing new, itself being another version of the Little Guy vs. The Man underdog kind of thing, but Cline loads it with enough throwbacks to 1980s culture and nerdgasmic references to sink Fhloston Paradise. (Well, y’know, if Fhloston Paradise was a seaworthy boat instead of a floating barge…)
But in being an abridged version of the novel, scriptwriters Cline and Zak Penn have essentially lost the gravitas and stakes behind the game itself. The original story took months and years to reach its completion; the film’s timeline feels like only a matter of days from beginning to end. Speeding through the story doesn’t give enough time for the friendships and relationships to fully root and expand organically. Sure, we’re told Wade’s best friend in the OASIS is a fellow male gunter (a portmanteau of “Egg hunter”) named Aech† with an ogre-like avatar, and we see some flavor kicked between them, but it feels fleeting, taking a backseat to building Wade up to be the hero everyone hopes he becomes.
Also, certain twists and turns the novel takes are sacrificed for a more gender-typical story. In no way is gunter Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) ever a damsel in distress; she more than holds her own in this male-dominated world. While the film still takes great pains to establish her as strong and in control, they actually give her Wade’s action from the novel, adding a trumped-up rescue mission for more drama. This exchange of plot action gives Art3mis more to do than be a mysterious love interest for Wade. Doing this removes all the stalkerish, alpha-male tones of the book, but Wade’s attraction and developing love for Art3mis feels slapped together and perfunctory, as if we *needed* a love interest to drive the plot.
What’s left makes a wonderful, exuberant nostalgia bomb for a filmmaker like Spielberg, who possesses not only the talent to wrangle this kind of show, but a requisite deft hand balancing between story and eye candy. For better or for worse, Ready Player One is entirely eye candy, as it centers largely on the most massive of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs), with more than half of the film’s running time located in the virtual world.
Occasionally, I have decried the overuse of computer graphics to tell a story. However, it’s the reason we’re here, and there’s no avoiding watching the players’ avatars more than the actors playing them. But at least it’s an entertaining ball of gigantic nostalgic fun, with visual nods of all shapes and sizes for film, comic book, anime, and game enthusiasts to spot. As I mentioned, Ready Player One is steeped in ’80s culture, as it’s late OASIS creator James Halliday’s (Mark Rylance) favorite period. One spectacular sequence involving the players having to participate in a life-size simulation of an early ’80s horror movie thrills and wows; this scene is almost worth the price of admission alone.
Quite frankly, there are more than a few nods – in both the book and the film – to Scott Pilgrim, a graphic novel series (and filmed adaptation in 2010) with more personality and heart than either representation of Ready Player One. Spielberg’s adaptation is a wondrous visual extravaganza, and it’s going to be one of those flicks you’ll readily pop in on Blu-Ray to examine every little detail. It’s a living, breathing version of Trivial Pursuit: Totally ’80s, and it’s just as much fun to watch. Yet an over-reliance on admittedly fantastic visuals can’t hide an underwhelming script having to be elevated by its performers. For all its bells and whistles, Ready Player One may not give you the indescribable feeling you get in your gut when you’re watching Spielberg at his finest, but it’s still a sight to behold.
† – Actor’s name withheld so as not to spoil the film.