When Ernest Cline released his book Ready Player One in 2011, it became a bestseller that many in the geek culture clamped onto with the veracity of a hungry tiger capturing its prey. Naturally one of the biggest questions to rise in the wake of Ready Player One‘s success was whether or not a film adaptation of a nostalgic tribute that played like a Who Framed Roger Rabbit for geek culture should be made. Or if it even could be made. Warner Brothers decided to step up to the plate and enlisted the help of a man whose film work was one of the book’s biggest inspirations – Steven Spielberg.
As filming started, many fans of the book became vocal on-line when it was announced that many of the nostalgic moments from the book would be taken out and replaced, particularly those referring to Spielberg’s work directly. Reportedly Spielberg has a superstition about making self-references or parodying himself, ever since he did so in his notorious flop 1941 and he was afraid that history would repeat itself.
Spielberg did eventually agree to include some of the elements from his past films, having remembered whilst playing in a sandbox he has not visited since Jurassic Park that what may work on print may not work on film. Because of this, both Cline and Zak Penn developed a screenplay along with Spielberg that would present the same story as the novel with the same nostalgic feel but work better on screen.
The result? While not producing a landmark film like Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, Ready Player One does take us back to a time where Spielberg was having fun making films that were there for the sole purpose of entertaining us. For me, this was a side of Spielberg that I have not seen since Jurassic Park and I have deeply missed it.
Ready Player One is set in the not-too-distant-future of 2044 – a dystopian time where resources have become so exhausted that people no longer care to try and save the world. Life has become too much for people to handle. Enter James Halliday, a tech wizard who created OASIS – a virtual reality utopia where you can do anything and be anyone. Upon the day of his death, a video will is released onto OASIS, revealing that he has hidden an Easter Egg somewhere in the game and the first person to find it will become the sole owner of OASIS and all the financial benefits and power that comes with it. Faster than you can say “Willy Wonka”, virtually everyone is searching OASIS for The Egg.
Those who made it their sole purpose to go into OASIS and hunt for The Egg are called Gunters. Our protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), known as Parzival in OASIS, is one such a Gunter. In reality, Wade is a teenager who lives with his aunt and her jerk of a boyfriend in Columbus, Ohio (Oklahoma City in the book) in an impoverished location known as The Stacks – a collection of mobile homes stacked on top of each other in haphazard columns. Every day, Wade escapes to OASIS to hunt for the three keys needed to find The Egg. As he gets closer, a company named IOI (Innovative Online Industries) steps in to try and stop Parzival and his quest, even if it means killing him.
IOI is portrayed as an evil, soulless corporation whose goal is to acquire ownership of everything they can. (Insert your own Disney Joke here.) The man in charge is Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) – a man who has no issue with putting people who cannot pay their debts to IOI into VR slave camps or even killing people to gain what he wants.
Side Note: It is somewhat ironic that Mendelsohn is basically playing a slightly more wormy version of Krennic from Rogue One here. And yet, while the villain is a cliche, that cliche is necessary in a film that celebrates and pays tribute to the origins of these cliches. For that reason, the performance works, though it also helps that Mendelsohn seems to be having fun playing this character.
One of the biggest worries regarding Ready Player One was how it would handle Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) – the female protagonist of the original book. While nominally presented as a strong and independent woman, many readers feel that Art3mis is a stereotypical misogynistic Manic Pixie Dream Girl character in both her appearance and actions, serving no purpose in the story other than to inspire Wade to succeed and then becoming his trophy girlfriend once he does.
The good news is that the film takes steps to correct this. While the avatar of Art3mis in OASIS still looks like a Hentai fantasy character, she does make it a point to say that this is how she wants to make people see her because she is afraid of being treated like any other woman in the video game universe. The bad news is that it still take’s a man’s approval for Art3mis to see her own true inner beauty. When Wade accepts her for who she truly is and not the avatar he sees, then and only then does she learn to accept herself. Problematic, but at least she is not singing Someday My Prince Will Come while waiting on Wade to rescue her for the entire movie.
I would be remiss if I did not talk about the vocal performance of T.J. Miller, who plays the bounty- hunter i-R0k. The character is a satire of the stereotypical MMORPG gamer: the kind who spends their entire life on-line playing a game and has no life outside of it, despite all their claims to the contrary. Miller’s vocal perfomance makes it hard to hate this villainous sidekick character and it could stand as Exhibit A in the case for why The Oscars need a category for Best Voice Over Performance. Miller’s work here would easily get a nomination if such a category existed.
Naturally, the film does not skimp on the nostalgia factor. Paying tribute to filmmakers like John Hughes, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Zemeckis and special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, the film packs in so much nostalgic eye candy that it will require multiple viewings to see it all. Fortunately, this spectacle does not get in the way of the story. In fact it adds to it, though the story is hardly a groundbreaking piece of prose.
Where Ready Player One proves revolutionary, however, is in regards to visual effects and what one can do when it comes to crafting a fantasy/science fiction film. Many of the most famous tropes in sci-fi cinema and family-friendly films comes from Spielberg’s films from The 1980s. Here, Spielberg gets to play with those same toys once more while paying tribute to the filmmakers who inspired him to become a movie maker as well as his friends and fellow filmmakers. Ironically, in a movie based on nostalgia and a love of the past, Spielberg has created something new and exciting with Ready Player One.
In a time where American culture is drowning deeply in the waves of nostalgia, it is nice to see glimmers of cinematic achievement that get it right. Ready Player One is one such glimmer. I missed this Spielberg – the man who made movies that made us just want to grab a giant bucket of popcorn and escape from our lives for a few hours, but not at the expense of terrible storytelling. It’s been far too long since Spielberg told a story with these kind of fantastical elements and it is good to see him back in the saddle.
The merits of this film will be debated at length in the geek community for some time to come and there is no escaping that. (After all, what do geeks do best if not argue about whether the things they love are good or not?) With that said, I found myself pleasantly surprised and entertained by Ready Player One. This will be one film that will join the ranks of cinematic comfort food for me for years to come.