Ready Player One [Review by Haus]
Ernest Cline’s 2011 debut novel Ready Player One was terrific, both an obsessed fanboy love letter to early 80s pop culture, and a futuristic, VR-based, be-anyone-you-want-to-be techno-thriller. A bidding war broke out for the movie rights before the novel even hit the press, and now — the better part of a decade later — comes Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited film adaptation.
It’s a curious beast. Sure, it’s predictably solid, upbeat, and an entertaining ride, but fans of Cline’s novel will scratch our heads as Spielberg strips away many of the book’s most memorable moments.
Looking only at the 2 hour 20 minute runtime, I initially wondered if Spielberg tried to capture and cram in every twist of the book’s plot. I needn’t have worried: In actuality, Zak Penn’s adaptation is anchored only sparingly to the original arc, elsewhere flapping and billowing into parts unwritten (and sometimes unneeded, though not altogether unpleasant).
This much is the same: Ready Player One takes place in 2045 (though the novel’s Oklahoma City has mysteriously been swapped for Columbus), in a glum world of depleted resources, pollution, and stacked mobile homes. Reality bites here, so citizens spend most waking moments inside the OASIS, a colossal VR universe. (Aside: Cline’s novel stressed that kids go to school in the OASIS, business is transacted, and so on; but in the film it feels more like Second Life — a game-slash-chat room, catnip for binge-watchers but an ultimately trivial diversion. I like it less as just a game.)
Upon his death, Halliday — the OASIS’s reclusive creator, richest man alive, and die-hard eighties fan — hid the keys to the kingdom (and a $500 billion prize) as an Easter Egg somewhere inside his virtual universe, open to anyone who’s able to find and solve a series of challenging puzzles. But five years later, despite rabid worldwide interest, no one has solved even the first riddle. So when protagonist Wade Watts (avatar: Parzival) captures the first key, he kickstarts a rollicking plot that pits him and his nerdy compatriots in a race against other gunters (egg-hunters, get it?) as well as deep-pocketed corporate baddies out to control the OASIS no matter the cost. Along the way, we’re treated to fanciful virtual-reality battles and pop-culture references galore.
Spielberg’s take on all this brings the OASIS to life in startling CGI beauty, and it’s a lot of fun — a heady, visually striking romp with a slew of (largely new) references and a recurrent focus on the value of real-world, personal connection. (Though it’s admittedly hard to take the latter message too seriously when it’s coupled to such a pretty VR world.)
Ben Mendelsohn is terrific as evil CEO Nolan Sorrento, Olivia Cooke (my favey-fave in Thoroughbreds) stuns as gunter Art3mis, T.J. Miller earns laughs as baddie I-R0k, and Mark Rylance is so wondrously chawkward (chill / awkward, natch) that it’ll be impossible to reread the novel without picturing him as Halliday. Tye Sheridan plays Wade Watts / Parzival, and he’s fine — though admittedly he doesn’t have too much to work with here, since he’s only in the film for about five minutes. (His Final-Fantasy-esque avatar carries most of his water.) Simon Pegg, Lena Waithe, Philip Zhao, and Win Morisaki round out the cast. No complaints there.
I’m actually fine, too, with the heavy plot revisions — they work. But I’m less forgiving of Spielberg and Penn gutting the book’s central series of 80s-trivia challenges.
We all guessed that some iconic highlights would be swapped, chiefly in the name of licensing rights — Ultraman is out, the Iron Giant is in, that sort of thing. But Spielberg’s version is surprising for the sheer extent of its changes. While the book saw Parzival and pals wade (sorry) through scene after scene of lovingly nerdy, overwrought eighties minutiae, Spielberg’s version scraps pretty much every last one of those challenges in favor of a totally different series of tests. These are splashy and fun to watch, but they serve a very different master. (Namely, the God of Stuff that Looks Good in CGI.) A full-on love-letter to the 80s this is not.
And that’s a shame. To me, much of what made Cline’s novel so memorable was its nostalgic geek-outs, paired with Da Vinci Code-style puzzles and revelations about classic movies, music, and games. Spielberg irrigated much of this in a fairly savage high colonic, which simply cannot be set right with a CGI DeLorean and a name-check of Robert Zemeckis.
But if you’re less attached to those specifics than I was — or better yet, if you’re coming to this fresh — Ready Player One is solid, entertaining, and a ride worth taking.
Haus Verdict: Ready Player One stands on its own as a fun, visually epic VR adventure, but fans of the book will have to gulp hard and swallow a thick slurry of major changes.
Ready Player One opens Friday, March 30.
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