Set in the not too distant future the world suffers from economic recession and ecological depletion. To escape those problems people have The Oasis,a virtual reality social media game thing designed by one James Halliday. When Halliday dies he leaves a trail of clues and keys to a secret treasure he hid inside his creation. Wade Watts, known as Parsival, is on track to find this key. However, a global corporation with plans of virtual domination is hot on his heels.
Based on the book of the same name by Ernest Cliene, Ready Player One has been lauded as a pop cultural titan. One that banks not only on the more nerdy aspects of 80’s culture like video games and comic books but also fashion, music, movies and language from around the world. I read the book when the film was announced and I fell in love with the story. It is a gripping page-turner that would be right at home in paperback sections of any airport or train station bookshop. It’s no masterpiece sure, and there are issues with the politics of the books, but as a story it is one that you will devour. I was engrossed with Parsival and Art3mis’ adventure through countless worlds, the relationship between all the main characters, the back story of Halliday and his business partner and friend Ogden Morrow. It struck a cord at a time that I needed, it was a good escapist adventure, one that I might return to, but for now I have fond memories of the story.
Ready Player One the film however has some major issues. Off the bat it has an identity crisis; it is a film that does not know who its audience is. While it could be aiming for fans of the book, the at times exciting story is an unrecognisable adaptation that causes more consternation than appreciation. Speaking as someone who liked the book, it was baffling to see how different the story and characters were. The entire opening section had been changed, new extraneous characters had been added, plot points shifted around, changed or removed entirely. This may be due to the source material not having filmable action sequences. The first key is gained through playing a game of the computer game Joust rather than a more cinematic race and most of the other plot points happen watching or playing other 80’s pop culture which would have made a very passive (and probably expensive) experience. Similarly, the character of F’Nale Zandor, a fixer for IOI, is an interesting if underutilised addition to the world and The Shining sequence is without doubt the best thing in the film. It’s a shame the rest of it is so bland.
It is not for fans of Speilberg himself as a filmmaker; the lack of character and character development in the film holds it back, turning it into an empty experience. Even with the drastic change in the story, Ready Player One feels incomplete. The story rushes from one set piece to the next without really developing the world beyond the introductory and graceless expedition dump. Our main leads get no development over the film; there is no real change in them, Wade Watts, played here by X-Men Apocalypse‘s Tye Sheridan, is never really established as a character; all we see are actors trying desperately to act in environments that they aren’t interacting with. This is true with Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe and especially T.J. Miller, who is unfortunately going for wise-cracking bounty-hunter with pseudo villain I-R0k but comes across as an actor trying to be a wise-cracking bounty-hunter and failing. Ben Mendleson, Mark Rylance and Simon Pegg perhaps lend the only decent performances, but those mainly happen outside of The Oasis and thus these more experienced actors can have some fun.
Finally there is a lesson about not letting pop-culture define you and an anti-corporate/capitalist message buried in the film somewhere, but it is so poorly handled it feels like a parody of itself; especially seeing as, despite our heroes fighting against a faceless organisation hellbent on turning a free resource into a heavily monetised and ad riddled experience, they are defending artistic properties that make the creators or the studios that host the rights millions, and advertising Pizza Hut, Minecraft, Halo, Overwatch and tons of other things that you can buy right now. In fact that was something that felt laking from the movie, in the book there is a clear obsession with the 80s. Wade and all the people he interacts with are immersed in the culture, constantly showing off knowledge about obsure movies, TV music, video games anything. Here in the film there is nothing, you just have to know about Halliday, rather than sharring in Halliday’s passions, this plus the more references to modern day Intellectual property means that the adaptation misses the point of the original.
It could be for a fan of special effects; but the constant camera movement through the flashy digital worlds can make those prone to motion sickness nautious. Similarly, the reliance on CGI faces sends its main characters down an uncanny valley of catastrophic proportions.
It could be possible that the film is just accentuating the book’s issues. These include the lack of real stakes in the narrative, the troubling gender and LGBTQ+ issues, especially after it was revealed that Cline wrote an incredibly ill-thought out poem back in 2000, 11 years before the book that made him famous. Or the film’s problems are its own. Whatever the cause, in the end Ready Player One is not ready for consumption, it needs to go back to beta for more playtesting.
You can watch Ready Player One in cinemas now