It’s become cool to hate on Ready Player One recently. Ever since the first trailer for the film came out I have seen a lot of vitriol for the book circle around the internet. Now there are legitimate criticisms that can be levelled towards the book for how reference heavy it gets at points, the way that Ernest Cline writes the world building and the depiction of the relationship between Wade and Artemis (although forgetting the part where Artemis cuts off contact with Wade for several months), but I connected a lot with the book, seeing elements of Wade in myself, I understood the idea of going into a world of pop culture to escape from the real world and I just had a blast reading the book, reading Ready Player One was one of the few times where I was so entertained and engaged reading a book that I read the whole thing in 1 session. However, there are still those problems with the book and those, particularly the reference heavy nature of the world-building, made me a bit worried when the film was announced due to the cost of licensing all the characters and settings depicted in the book. Then they announced that Steven Spielberg was directing it and most of my worries went away as there is no-one better at directing this type of film that Spielberg and this is once again another one of his great, entertaining blockbusters which fixes a lot of the problems in the book.
The film takes place in 2045, after a series of events has led to life getting a lot worse for the citizens, with the only escape being the OASIS, a virtual reality created by James Halliday, which people filled with their own versions of pop culture, including taking on avatars based on famous characters. The main plot focuses on a contest set up by Halliday for after his death with him hiding an easter egg in the OASIS which would give the winner half a trillion dollars and control over the OASIS, with our focus being on Wade Watts, a teenager living in an impoverished area of Columbus, Ohio, who becomes the first person to get one of the three keys necessary to win the egg and, along with other egg hunters (known as gunters) Aech, Artemis, Daito and Sho, has to find the other keys before they are found by tech giant IOI, led by Nolan Sorrento, who wants to gain control over the OASIS to both make it, to use a phrase coined by Jim Sterline, a fee-to-pay game and use it to expand IOI’s set of indentured servants. Now there are a lot of changes that are made to the book, some of which in terms of presentation I’ll get to later, but the most important change from the start is how the quests for the keys are arranged in the film compared to the book. In the book, the quests were based on Halliday’s pop culture obsessions which, whilst entertaining to read about, didn’t necessarily give us an insight into Halliday. For the film, the quests are changed so that, whilst on the surface they are about Halliday’s obsessions, they are actually about the regrets that Halliday has in his life and these moments give Halliday a more explicit degree of depth compared to the book and ultimately makes the final reveals about Halliday come about more naturally compared to the book. Another of the changes I like is giving Artemis more character development. By tying in her character development more explicitly to IOI and giving her some of the elements of the book that were originally given to Wade, it gives us more of a connection to Artemis, along with retaining the important element of the book of how interactions online are not the same as genuine affection for someone as you wouldn’t know who the real person is. The film also does a great job at conveying how people use the OASIS as an escape from the real world in a way that’s more effective than the book by virtue of it being a visual language. Whilst in the book there had to be a detailed explanation of the escapism in the OASIS, in the film we cut back and forth between scenes in the OASIS and scenes in the real world to show this disconnect between the OASIS and reality and this technique does a more effective job than the book at showing this.
Now there are some areas where I think the book works better than the film, firstly with the character development for Aech, Daito and Sho, particularly in relation to their avatars in the OASIS, although I won’t spoil anything here. Some of the development for Aech is preserved, although the explanation for it is lost, whilst all the character development for Daito and Sho is cut out with pretty much everything about the characters completely changed, which in turn removes some of the importance of the hero fantasy ideas in the book, along with how an online environment like the OASIS impacts on issues like race and gender and how avatars can reinforce or remove these kinds of barriers that are seen in the real world. The same is true with Ogden Morrow, but there I think the removal of stuff for him works for the overall development of Halliday, making the loneliness of Halliday more apparent, in turn making the revelations about Halliday more impactful than they were in the book.
The performance meanwhile are solid across the board. Whilst I was a bit disappointed why Tye Sheridan was cast as Wade (my ideal choice would have been Asa Butterfield) but I was pleasantly surprised by his work in the film. He does a great job at showing the growing pressure faced by Wade as he finds the keys, he presents the geeky knowledge effectively and he does well showing how much he is diving into the OASIS to the detriment of his real life. Olivia Cooke as Artemis meanwhile gives a brilliant performance. She does a good job at showing her initial annoyance at Wade and her reactions to Wade’s growing feelings for her feel genuine, from the feeling that Wade doesn’t know who she really is and only knows an idea of her to her growing feelings for Wade when they interact in the real world (another major change from the book as they only meet face to face in the final moments of the book), as well as showing the personal stakes she has in finding the egg and how it connects to her relationship with IOI. Ben Mendehlson as Sorrento meanwhile does the usual great work he does whenever he plays a slimy businessman (as seen in The Dark Knight Rises and Rogue One to an extent), showing off the greed of the character and how out of place he is in the environment of the OASIS. Mark Rylance as Halliday meanwhile shows the insecurity and isolation of Halliday effectively, indicating the difficulty he has in his social life and how it is filled with regret, with Rylance playing well off of Simon Pegg as Morrow. Originally, like with Sheridan, I wasn’t sure about Pegg playing Morrow as he is too young to play the character as described in the book (who I felt would be best played by Jeff Bridges), but the way Morrow is used in the film, almost entirely during his friendship with Halliday works, Pegg showing Morrow was the more genial and outgoing of the two and shows how the friendship between Halliday and Morrow collapsed effectively. For the other cast members, the person who plays Aech does a great job at showing the friendship between them and Wade although to go more into detail, including revealing the person who plays Aech, would spoil the film, TJ Miller, as horrible a person he is in real life, is good comic relief here as I-ROK his voice fitting the character perfectly and I feel that Win Morisaki and Daito, Phillip Zhao as Sho, Ralph Ineson and Rick, Hannah John-Kamen as F’Nale were wasted and there is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from Letitia Wright who probably would have been more prominent in the film if this didn’t come out so soon after Black Panther.
On a technical level, this film reminds us just how good a director of action Steven Spielberg is. The way he paces and choreographs the action scenes, especially ones designed to be chaotic, has a elegance to it, allowing us to follow the main characters through all of the chaos, giving a strong sense of speed during the race at the start of the film and showcases the epic scope in the final battle. The actual design of the OASIS is great, working well in contrast with the real world (which makes great use of the environment of Digbeth in Birmingham which, having studied it over the course of my Master’s, was the right location for filming a run down area of a city), and the use of motion capture for the characters in the OASIS adds to the video game feel of it, the uncanny valley effect of motion capture working in the films favour. There are also moments where the reference heavy nature of the film allows Spielberg to use different directing styles in relation to the references, in particular an extended sequence paying tribute to The Shining allows Spielberg to once again replicate the directing style of Stanley Kubrick. This nature extends to the score, Alan Silvestri making use of previous pieces of music to fit the references we see on screen, the most prominent ones I heard being to Silvestri’s own score for Back to the Future and to Akira Ikafube’s score for Godzilla.
The final thing I want to talk about in the film are the pop culture references. Now the depiction of the references here is easily better than how they are depicted in the book. Whilst I enjoyed their depiction in the book when it was during action moments there were a lot of moments that were dedicated to explaining references for people who wouldn’t know what was being referenced and this does impact the flow of the book and is one of the most easily mocked parts of the book. In the film though, due to it being a visual language, we can see the references and, unless the reference is a key plot point, you don’t get a full explanation of what is being referenced, expecting prior knowledge of the designs to be all you need and this does make the film flow better than the book. The opening race for example would not work as well if it had to explain that the vehicles being driven included the DeLorean from Back to the Future and Tetsuo’s motorbike from Akira, it’s a case of if you get the reference you get the reference but you don’t need to dwell on it and when it is dwelled on, like when we get a reference to Buckaroo Banzai, it’s used to show how the obsession of the characters is taking them out of the real world. It also means that the dialogue is able to flow more naturally by removing most of the references from it, the first conversation between Wade and Artemis feels more natural here than in the book where they spent their first conversation quoting Highlander to each other. Now there are still problems with the references including how some of them go against the tone of the film they came from, most prominently with the use of The Iron Giant (which was mainly due to it being a replacement for Ultraman due to a rights issue). The main issue though comes back to an issue with pop culture in general, that being how focused it is on the culture of straight, white men, this thing being unavoidable in doing a story focused on nostalgia due to how much culture was shaped by straight, white men and, until there is a massive cultural shift to focus on other voices both now and ones from the past, this is an issue that will plague anyone attempting to do a story like Ready Player One, it didn’t detract too much from the film for me but I can understand how others will have an issue with it.
Now, despite the criticisms I have for both the book and the film, I still love Ready Player One. The issues with both forms of the story do exist but they didn’t stop me from connecting with the characters, understanding the world and having a great time with the story. In many ways the film is the superior version of the story, despite the removal of a lot of the character development from the book, due to the visual language of film by itself removing issues with Cline’s writing through showing everything Cline described in the book rather than dwelling on it like the book had to do, giving more development to Artemis and connecting the egg hunt more closely with Halliday. Again, I do understand the criticisms and issues that people have with Ready Player One, but I had a great time watching it and it once again shows why Steven Spielberg is one of, if the not the best, blockbuster directors working today.
My Rating: 5/5