Steven Spielberg has done something quite spectacular here. He’s made Ready Player One into a film that isn’t as stodgy and unpleasant as the book. In fact, Spielberg has taken this book and made an actually watchable adaptation. It’s by no means great. But it’s watchable.
The plot is as such. It’s the future, 2045 to be precise.
The world is particularly dystopian following such horrendous events as the “Corn Syrup droughts” and the “Bandwidth Riots”. To escape their misery, everyone uses Oasis, a virtual reality system that allows people to be whoever they want and simulates literally anything your mind can dream up.
Within this virtual world, the creator, Halliday, has left an in game treasure hunt following his death. Whoever solves his puzzles will win ownership of the company behind the Oasis. That’s your plot. Find the secret macguffins within the game world.
In the real world, theres an evil corporation, IOI, trying to do just that. They want this system so they can make changes to sell advertising within the game world and basically ruin the last source of freedom and happiness for most of the world. Opposing them is our hero, Wade Watts / Parzival, a poor kid who dreams of better things from finding the end of the treasure hunt.
The film is split between the real world, as we follow Wade Watts trying to avoid the machinations of IOI and the virtual world as we follow Parzival following the treasure hunt.
The real world sections are not that pleasant to watch. Potentially intentionally, there some issues with the script varying in quality, with the “real life” sequences having some absurdly heavy handed and repetitive dialogue.
The script however is outdone in cheesiness by the action. For some reason, all virtual reality actions in this story require the real world person to perform the same action.
As a result, we keep flashing back from CG avatars to real people performing spin kicks and miming gunfights. Everybody in this world is a kung Fu master. Somehow.
There’s a great deal of this reality switching going on, and it’s hard to read it all as anything but tongue in cheek. Otherwise, it would have to be taken as presented. Badly.
The virtual world sections are significantly better. Suspension of disbelief in the game allows for some genuinely entertaining action sequences. These sequences show the real grasp Spielberg has over how games should be represented on the screen.
The avatars never fall into the uncanny valley, with the lighting and textures actually looking fairly convincing, especially in motion. The original character designs are even visually interesting with Aech and Artemis being standouts in this regard.
But, Ready Player One has been marketed in a very specific way. We need to talk about the references. This movie trains it’s audience to watch in a specific way. In any crowd shot, the virtual world is filled with characters drawn from dozens of films/games/tv shows.
It does help if those Characters involve properties tangentially connected to Warner Brothers though. Expect lots of DC characters and the like.
It’s weirdly engrossing somehow, while being incredibly shallow. While the general movie is going on, the audience is picking out references to series like Street Fighter, Halo, Freddy Kreuger. The audience is playing Where’s Wally all the time here as the plot unfolds.
As might be expected from the film, these allusions mean literally nothing. They are never expanded upon, there is no other commentary than awkwardly stating what the reference is.
There is literally one exception to this. The main villain uses a specific Avatar that is a perfect choice which perfectly sums up their own self image.
There are a few stand out moments in Ready Player One though. Overall, the big action sequences are reference heavy, but entertaining to watch. The three treasure hunt sequences form the lynchpins of the film, and they earn their place. Solid direction and interesting ideas sell them well.
There’s a sequence about halfway through that seems like it cannot be interpreted any other way than Spielberg taking a fifteen minute break to talk about adaptation and the difficulties and point thereof. It’s frankly wonderful to watch. To say more would be a truly unfortunate spoiler.
Then there’s Mark Rylance’s James Halliday. In spite of only being depicted in Virtual Reality or recorded sequences, he is by far the most interesting and human character in the whole film. The character in the books was a ludicrously obsessed savant, more concerned with their creation than anything else. Here, the film is concerned with what that social isolation would actually do to a person. As with the rest of the script, it rather beats the audience round the head with the message. In spite of this, it has a charm and sincerity that is a vast improvement in the adaptation.
It’s a very strange film. I don’t think it gets close to having any kind of good story or meaning beyond what the film literally spells out. The dialogue is almost universally poorly handled. As an adaptation, everything good about the film comes from making significant changes to the plot, pacing, characters, motivations and general action sequences.
But the film version of Ready Player One has a weird sincerity that the book lacked. The action is interesting to watch. The perpetual game of spot the reference is an oddly compelling bonus for the film as well.
It may be damning by faint praise, but the film is genuinely an improvement on the book.
Ready Player One has no pretentions of grandeur, and seems content to just wallow in being a spectacular and visually interesting festival of action. As long as that’s what you’re looking for, Ready Player One is for you.