Well, I told myself I wasn’t going to do it. I thought, “If I’ve already talked about the book, why would I bother talking about the movie? Seems kind of repetitive.” But after some reflection, I decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up. So without further ado, let’s talk about the movie version of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One!
You can read my thoughts on the original book version of Ready Player One in one of my previous reviews. I won’t overdo the story explanation in that case, because in that respect the movie basically mirrors the book: teenager Wade Watts lives in a dystopian future where society is deteriorating and more and more people spend most of their time in the OASIS, a virtual reality environment where they can travel anywhere, do anything, and be anyone they want. When the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, dies, he leaves behind a series of cryptic clues, challenges, and puzzles that will in theory allow anyone in the OASIS to succeed him as the controller of this new world. When Wade stumbles upon the answer to the first challenge, he’s drawn into a struggle for control of the OASIS where what happens in the fantasy can have real-world consequences, as a giant corporation will stop at nothing to take over the OASIS and eliminate anyone who stands in their way.
As I thought the book version of Ready Player One was pretty awesome, the movie version had a lot to live up to, and I figured with someone like Steven Spielberg at the helm, it would do that and more. But when initial reviews came in, I was disappointed by its lukewarm reception and debated whether I even wanted to see it at all. I eventually did, and at first was pretty disappointed with the adaptation and all the changes it made to the book. But the more I thought about it, the more okay with it I got, to the point where I’m talking to you here today to say that while it falls short of greatness, the film Ready Player One is still pretty fun to watch.
As you can read my last review for some of the context of my analysis, I won’t spend too much time explaining what happened in the book, but dedicate that time instead to explaining how the movie version was different. The first major thing that struck me was how different the challenges were in the movie: much more physical and spectacle-based in nature rather than an honest test of skill, smarts, and cultural knowledge. Just look at the first one, where a massive race across an ever-shifting and chaotic version of New York City replaces a simple one-on-one video game match between Wade and a computer opponent. I guess I can understand it, though. Would people going to see a big action-packed movie really want to watch a tedious video game match with, if the setting of the game is to be believed, pretty low graphics quality? Probably not, obviously. And I admit, watching the DeLorean go on a Death Race tear through the collapsing environment was pretty awesome. I’m just saying that I think it misses the point of the exercise. Same with how “The Shining” replaced “WarGames” as the film to be reenacted. But more on that later on.
The character development in the movie was also significantly changed from in the book, with the romance between Wade and Artemis taking a front-row seat. While this was obviously a big theme in the book, too, the film largely skips over the question of what a “real” relationship is in the OASIS or anywhere else online that plagues their love story and introduces Wade to Artemis’s player, Samantha, way earlier than expected. As such, some of the dramatic tension and one of the more meaningful questions the book poses is somewhat deflated. I mean, there’s never really any doubt in my mind that Wade and Samantha love each other and are going to end up together in the movie, where in the book it’s still very much up in the air even by the ending. Taking away those kinds of meaningful themes was a recurring problem I had in the movie, which was taken as a much more straightforward, blockbuster adventure than an exploration of 80s culture or the role of virtual reality.
In that sense as well, I was slightly disappointed: while I thought the occasional music choices in Ready Player One were enjoyable and the references, like the DeLorean, Mechagodzilla, and “The Shining” were on point, the movie greatly downplayed the role of the 80s as a decade in James Halliday’s life, and was much less of a pop-culture grab bag than the book way. I guess this might be for the best because first-time viewers who don’t know the 80s at all wouldn’t be quite as overwhelmed. The book, while it did try to explain all the references it threw out, probably did cause a few readers to have to go back over it several times to get everything. The whole point of the book was being a tribute to that decade of entertainment, and I was kind of irritated by the fact that other so-called movie critics didn’t seem to get even the meager parts of that the film did throw out. “Why talk about the 80s?” they asked. “It’s such a regressive view of pop culture.” Dude, that’s kind of the whole point. How could you not understand this? I guess if you weren’t an enormous fan of the 80s like I and many other people are, you probably just didn’t get it. I think Spielberg does, though, and felt that it needed to be toned down for a wider audience to get it. Whatever.
Going back to what I said earlier, I don’t think the movie did enough to get us into James Halliday’s head. That was the whole point of the book Ready Player One: to show how growing up in the era where video games, movies, music, and all kinds of entertainment were finally coming into their own affected this one man who identified much more with them than he did with people. Halliday wanted someone to take over the OASIS who valued the same things he did and who was as much like him as possible, so he knew the future would be in good hands. I don’t think the movie did enough to demonstrate that. On the other hand, you could also argue that showing how Wade didn’t make the same mistake as Halliday and actually told the woman he loved how he felt shows that he’s a better man than Halliday ever was, and will find a better way to run things (as the mandatory break days eventually put in place prove). I guess it’s just a matter of differing interpretation.
Okay, enough about that. Some positives about Ready Player One the movie are that its side characters are much more well-developed, and it creates much more of an ensemble cast feel. With some of the things that Wade does in the book, like masterminding the plan to get arrested and break into IOI from the inside, makes him seem almost like a kind of superman, an unstoppable hero. The movie showed a much less confident, less charismatic version of Wade, who eventually grew into a person who was somewhat closer to his book counterpart, but not quite there. In fact, he wouldn’t have made it without the help of his friends. Sure that point exists in the book, too, but the movie did even more to drive it home. Also, I liked how Nolan Sorrento, the villain of the piece, was much more fleshed out in the film as not just a faceless evil corporate overlord, but as someone who was personally obsessed with taking over Halliday’s (his former boss’s) legacy. I mean, don’t get me wrong, he’s obviously a bad guy. He killed a lot of innocent people and did really unethical stuff. But whereas he’s never given any kind of opportunity for redemption in the book, the movie goes there in my view, especially in the final confrontation. He could easily have shot Wade there in the truck just as pure revenge, but he doesn’t. After everything that happened in the story, I think that moment where he was clearly as much in awe as everyone else said a lot about him. Credit where credit is due in this movie: most of the actors are pretty great. Wish they could’ve done more with Simon Pegg, though.
On that note, one thing I loved about the movie Ready Player One was that it left Easter Eggs of its own in the story, throwing doubt on whether Halliday was actually dead. I mean, think about it: the level of personal interaction whenever he or Anorak appeared seemed way too real for just a computer recording or something. Plus, instead of a written journal as in the book, the movie version presents Gunters like Wade with a full visual archive, publicly available, of every moment of Halliday’s life, recorded for posterity. Wait a minute, how is that even possible? There’s no way Halliday could have been recording himself every second of his life in preparation for a future he never knew he was going to have. So where did all that video come from? Unless it’s not footage, but live memories of a REAL LIVE PERSON. Plus, that non-denial of his death in his final scene with Wade really pulled the nail out of the coffin, so to speak: I’m convinced that in the film universe, Halliday is still alive out there somewhere after deciding to step out of the spotlight. Pretty cool when you think about it. Also, that twist where Ogden Morrow was the Curator the whole time? Nicely played indeed.
My Rating: 7/10
While the film version of Ready Player One may have boiled down and simplified the plot of the book source material in a way I wasn’t always comfortable with, I have to admit that it was still pretty well done, and pretty fun to watch. Sure it often focused on spectacle more than the deeper messages that I think the book was trying to convey, but enough of it was there that I’m sure viewers with no clue about any of this would really, really like it. For those of us who are long-time fans and read the book, probably less so, but I have to admit that forcing everything in the book into a two-hour movie would be pretty difficult. I also like that the movie brought an ensemble cast together much more quickly and made Wade less of a loner, along with providing additional fleshing out of the background cast, but disliked what I thought was a lessened emphasis on the pop culture of the 80s that I know and love.
All in all, a mixed bag really, but definitely passable entertainment that will delight newcomers and give existing fans some things to smile about. Ready Player One the movie isn’t better than the book, but isn’t really worse: it’s just different. And it’s probably better than half the adaptations out there based on that alone.