A few months ago someone told me that Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One was basically the male fantasy equivalent of Fifty Shades of Grey. Essentially both were badly written books that could only be appreciated by the gender and age group they were aimed at.
I can’t attest to the truth of that statement, especially since I haven’t read either book. But judging a film by its book cover has always been a pursuit in futility. Regardless of the book’s general reception, the most notable aspect of the adaptation is getting Steven Spielberg to direct. Hell, the man more or less created the concept of the “blockbuster.” And with the possible exception of James Cameron and Christopher Nolan, is there anyone else in the world whose name would be powerful enough to get all the rights needed for the world of Ready Player One?
Indeed, when looking at Spielberg’s prior work, it suggests he was easily one of the best people to adapt the 2011 novel. Jaws, The Colour Purple, Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s Ark, Amistad, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, War Horse, the Tintin comics and The BFG are all popular pieces of literature that he turned into critically and (mostly) commercially successful movies. (Okay, he kind of failed on adapting The Lost World, but could anyone have pulled off that book?)
But while Spielberg is a great choice for Ready Player One, is Ready Player One a great choice for Spielberg? His last true blockbuster success was 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of The Crystal Skull (Yes, argue as much as you want, but that film was massively successful!) In the ten years since, his attempts at blockbuster filmmaking (specifically The Adventures of Tintin and The BFG) haven’t reached anywhere near the same heights as his work in the 80s and 90s.
So, the question is… Does Spielberg still have the magic blockbuster touch?
The year is 2045 and teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) spends most of his time inside a digital world known as the OASIS. Created by the long-dead James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the OASIS is used by millions as a form of escape, allowing them the chance to do numerous activities they could never do in real life.
Along with his best friend, Aech (Lena Waithe), and famed player, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Watts has been trying to solve “Anorak’s Quest”; a series of puzzles that, when solved, would allow the winner to gain full control and legal ownership of the OASIS.
But with the same goal is the world’s second largest videogame company, Innovative Online Industries (IOI). Led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the ruthless company will stop at nothing to get out on top.
Opening with what can only be called a history lesson, Ready Player One quickly sets up the never ending nature of the OASIS. It’s in this world-building that the Spielberg imagination is best exhibited. Unlike Inception, which rigidly stuck to real world restrictions (despite the fact that many sequences were meant to be dreams); Spielberg’s newest film isn’t afraid to take the fantastical to a whole new level.
From climbing Everest with Batman to skydiving out of the spaceship Serenity, the pop culture references come thick and fast. And for the most part they can be taken as interesting additions to the backdrop. The problem, however, arises when pop culture references are used as text rather than subtext. For example, the film’s plot makes heavy use of the old Atari game system and several scenes from a famed Stanley Kubrick film. But unless you are very familiar with both these aspects (which, I confess, I am not), those scenes become tedious rather than entertaining
Visually the movie is astounding and serves to remind the world just how skilled Spielberg is, even when his eye is behind a camera that’s entirely digital. But while the visual effects can rival Star Wars or the Marvel movies, the same can’t be said for its assortment of characters.
In particular the main protagonist comes to mind. While Sheridan does his best, what he’s been given is about as complex as a numerically-heavy episode of Sesame Street. He has no distinct character arc or goal outside of the desire of just wanting to win. At least in The Hunger Games winning meant surviving!
It’s clear the blankness of his character would have worked very well in the book, where (I assume) Watts existed for the reader to project themselves upon. But on the big screen this becomes dull as ditchwater. Especially when compared to Cooke’s character, who at least has the goal of familial revenge and escaping from a cycle of debt.
But the single biggest problem is that of stakes. Specifically there is none for most of the movie. Being set almost entirely in a videogame world means no sense of danger exists. There is no fear of loss or fear of death. Sure, the film attempts to make some lip service towards it with the idea that losing in-game currency is important. But even when the events of the OASIS spill out into the real world, the threat never seems like anything more than a minor inconvenience.
Compare this to, say, The Matrix. In that film, it’s made abundantly clear how high the stakes are whenever you enter the Matrix. As Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus says: “The body cannot live without the mind.” That one line is enough to tell you that entering the Matrix is literally life or death. But the OASIS has none of that. It’s a videogame world, filled with respawns and extra lives, and as such emphasising with the character’s struggles becomes next to impossible.
Spielberg set himself one hell of a task in doing Ready Player One. To take a book that is actively aimed at a tiny minority of people, and attempt to make it palatable to as many individuals as possible would have been an impossible challenge for most. But while Spielberg succeeds on a technical level, he ultimately can’t overcome the flaws inherent to the original idea.
Released maybe fifteen or even ten years ago, Ready Player One could have been the film for all pop-culture nerds to rally around. But in a world where obscure pieces of pop-culture have now been blown up into some of the biggest media franchises of all time, Ready Player One just seems late to the party.