Did you read Ready Player One? Did you enjoy it? Were you excited for Steven Spielberg’s movie?
Then you probably shouldn’t bother.
The biggest reason I say that, for many of you, is because the story of the movie and the story of the book share almost nothing but the broad strokes of character and plot. There’s still a Wade Watts/Parzival (Tye Sheridan), an Aech/Helen (Lena Waithe), an Art3mis/Samantha (Olivia Cookie), and a Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). There’s still a hunt through the Oasis for an easter egg following the death of the Oasis’ creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance).
But almost all of the details are changed from the opening frame of the movie which sets Wade’s home in The Stacks outside Columbus, Ohio instead of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma up to and including the epilogue of the story.
If that’s not enough to make you want to avoid the movie then, by all means, have at it. Or, if you’re not afraid of spoilers for the movie or the 6-year-old novel, follow me past the spoiler tag where I can really get into the issues that ail this movie.
The plot is a disaster
Let’s start with the thing we’ve already talked about a bit, the plot. So far as I am concerned Ready Player One was a flawed novel. Many people would go beyond that and describe it as disgusting “nostalgia porn”; I even saw an article today about how the Oasis itself is toxic because of its designer. I’m not ready to argue that far, at this time, but it’s definitely not a perfect story.
That being said, it did have one really cool and unique aspect, so far as I am concerned. It took Cline’s love of what is loosely defined as 80’s pop culture (seriously, a lot of that stuff came out way before or way after the 80’s) and crafted a plot where that kind of knowledge was useful. There was a purpose to all that nostalgia; it was Halliday’s obsession and he had made it clear that if you wanted to win the prize you were going to need to be intimately familiar with it. Love or hate the nostalgia, it had a distinct purpose to serve in the narrative of the story – this was actually a distinct flaw in Cline’s follow-up novel, Armada, which included even more nostalgia and references to nerd culture without ever giving it a reason for existing beyond name-recognition for his audience.
The movie completely drops all of that. Those of you who have read the novel will recall that Parzival was able to find the first key using hints and clues from Halliday and applying it to things Halliday was known to have liked. Parzival’s encyclopedic knowledge and ability to research Dungeons and Dragons as well as the video game Joust are the keys to solving the first puzzle, in the book. The first trial in the movie is displayed for anyone and everyone. It’s a simple race that happens to include some references to nerd culture – an animatronic dinosaur and King Kong – but without any distinct purpose. They could have been any kind of hazard and had the same effect. The clue for solving this race didn’t come in the form of any kind of 80’s knowledge but instead in the form of watching a video recording of a conversation Halliday once had and figuring out what his intent was.
Honestly, this might be the biggest plot hole of the movie, too. There’s no reason in particular for Parzival to watch that scene or assume it had any kind of vital information in it. It was an off-handed comment from Art3mis that even made him look and had nothing to do with any hints or clues provided by Halliday prior to that point. But I digress.
That’s more or less how the entire plot of the movie continues. In the book, the nostalgia was threaded into the mystery in the hints, the challenges, and the solutions. In the movie, the mystery was in finding the correct video of Halliday to watch and interpreting what he was saying while the nostalgia just serves as a background of easter eggs for audience members to point out and recognize. The challenges were also significantly dumbed down. In the book, you’ll recall that there were actually 6 total mysteries to be solved, one for each key and one for each gate. And acquiring the key and clearing the gate involved completing other, separate challenges. The movie halves this to 3 challenges. There were good reasons for these changes; the movie can’t be as long as the book, so there cannot be as many difficulties to overcome and they can’t take as long to get through; they couldn’t secure the rights to everything that appeared in the book; and they wanted to change up the mysteries so that the readers wouldn’t walk in already knowing all the answers to everything. It all makes sense, but it also makes the story lose any charm it had. It dumbs the story down to a simple, stupid popcorn flick that really is trading 100% on the audience’s love of nostalgia without doing anything useful with it.
The stakes aren’t interesting
In the book, the Sixers, IOI, and Sorrento are incredibly frightening. They don’t just have unlimited resources, nigh-infinite man-power, and a team of researchers. Sorrento is genuinely good at his job. So are the people he commands. They have talent and skill and their numbers allow them to specialize in ways that none of the other Gunters can manage. They appear to be invincible.
In the movie, yeah, IOI still has the numbers and resources. But they hardly have half a brain cell to share among them. Sorrento is a useless hack and the Sixers are all brainless mooks who use their numbers to fight the enemy because they have no other strategy instead of in addition to terrific strategy. There are exactly two genres of movies that can get away with having incompetent villains: children’s movies and slapstick comedies. In other words, movies that aren’t really trying very hard to keep you interested except in the moment to moment childish gags. There was never any doubt in any audience member’s mind that the good guys would win and that it would end up being relatively easy for them. In a movie that wants to be taken somewhat seriously, it’s a problem. When you’re writing a serious movie and the only competent enemy for your hero to face is played by T.J. Miller – who played Sorrento’s Oasis lackey, I-R0k, and may be an incredibly versatile actor but whom I have never seen in a role of someone you’d consider threatening or even really particularly intelligent – you have a problem. And when the payoff of the story is a villain who finally, miraculously catches up with the hero and has an opportunity to kill him and just…doesn’t… that’s a problem, too.
The movie wants to moralize and eat its cake, too
When we arrive at the end of the movie the incompetent villains try to blow everyone up but fail because Wade has an Extra Life coin. The fact that the last person seen to be holding the coin before Wade’s resurrection was actually Art3mis does not bother the writers at all. In any case, Wade is given the Crystal Key and then must unlock the door that leads to the easter egg. During this time Aech/Helen is driving their postal van through the city in what the movie wants us to view as a dangerous car chase but really ends up just being annoying. How can I be afraid for everyone’s life when Wade’s actions – and particularly Anorak’s reaction, “Well, do you want it or not?” – turn what could have been a tense moment into a slapstick comedy bit.
After Parzival finally unlocks the gate he is admitted into Anorak’s throne room and given a contract to sign. The movie tries to build tension by having Wade begin to realize that Anorak has one last trick up his sleeve before Wade can win and Sorrento stalks toward the van with a gun. It fails for several reasons:
- The worst of these is that Wade directed Helen to drive the van to the Stacks where he grew up and begs anyone who lives there to help protect them from Sorrento. All these angry people step up to stand between Wade and his tormentor but as soon as Sorrento whips out his pistol, they all just make way for him. I talked in my Star Wars: The Last Jedi review about how plans can fail and it can still be narratively interesting. When your plan changes absolutely nothing about the circumstances of the story or characters, it isn’t interesting.
- There was no trick in the book. Readers were left baffled by why Wade didn’t just sign the contract and end the contest.
- Signing the contract would not have prevented Wade from being murdered. This was not a moment where the hero can stop the villain cold by accomplishing their goal. Wade could just as easily have won the contest and been shot in the head if Sorrento hadn’t magically been persuaded to let him live by the golden glow in his hands and the tear streaming down his face. Maybe it would also have prevented Sorrento from winning and thrown the world into turmoil and hundreds of legal battles, but getting the egg logically should not have prevented Sorrento from shooting Wade.
The movie then goes on about how Halliday wished he had lived in the real world more and suggests that the heroes will shut down the Oasis for 2 days a week to force people to go outside. If you’ve read my posts about Star Trek you’ll know I’m all for moralizing in stories, especially science fiction stories. But you have to earn it. Show the audience why the moral you preach at the end is a real situation that needs to be dealt with and why the proposed solution makes sense.
The proposed moral is that Halliday, and by extension our current society, spent too much time in his computers and video games and not enough time in the real world. The movie only shows how this became a problem in that Halliday never kissed the girl he liked. But we aren’t given enough context to see whether this was actually a flaw brought on by his affinity for computers or if there were some others reason. Perhaps they didn’t actually click, perhaps even if he’d never touched a computer his social graces would have prevented it, maybe he was actually gay. The character doesn’t get enough screen time to eliminate any of these and if he felt that his love of computers was actually the problem then creating a contest which would encourage people to spend even more time steeped in the lore of his past and in the computer world he designed was a very poor way to communicate that indeed.
The proposed solution is a terrible one, as well. The book describes that all commerce is done through the Oasis by the time it starts. The movie does nothing to dissuade from this notion. That means that in shutting down the oasis 2 days a week The Hi Five will be throwing the world economy into chaos. Forcing people to not be on their computers two days a week also does nothing to encourage or ensure that they will use that time productively either in rebuilding society or in connecting with people “IRL”. People weren’t doing anything “wrong” per se, it seems odd to punish them for their habits and the way the world evolved rather than incentivizing people to improve the world and attempting to stimulate the economy.
The movie tries to add a sub-moral that Wade has learned the lesson that Halliday never learned, that you have to actually kiss the girl. First, as we’ve already established, we don’t know if Halliday ever actually had a chance to kiss the girl. Second, Wade never presented himself as the kind of person who wasn’t going to try to kiss Samantha the very first moment he thought he could get away with it, anyway. And this is the only moment that remotely resembles any kind of character growth in the film.
I hate to keep going back to a book to hold it up as a higher standard after I’ve already described it as flawed and many others have completely trashed it but even it is better in this regard, as well. The book starts with all 5 members of the Hi Five being completely opposed to working together. They’re all kind of selfish assholes to each other as they race to be the winner and only grudgingly offer tips to each other when they feel indebted. Throughout the course of the novel, however, they learn that relying on each other and working together isn’t all bad and banding together may be the only way to stop Sorrento and his goons. At the end, when Parzival declares that he’s going to split ownership of the company with his 3 remaining friends (Daito dies in the book because Sorrento and co. are much better at their jobs) it’s a much more startling revelation because of these previous actions, even though they had come together finally, and it proved his growth more than anything the movie added in. Of course, Wade does something else at the end of the book that does show up in the movie…
The worst moment from the book
While most of the movie was an exercise in chopping out as much of the book as possible without rendering it unrecognizable they still managed to carry over the biggest flaw from the book and somehow make it worse. Wade Watts could not have been a more realistic straight, teenage, white boy had Ernest Cline intended to create a self-absorbed asshole who believes he is God’s gift to creation. Unlike in the movie, the Hi Five were actually working entirely separately – including Art3mis and Parzival. Because of this, Art3mis didn’t want to become romantically involved with him. But Wade repeatedly attacked the boundaries she established. This is a portrayal of the “friend zone” in action where a woman simply wants to enjoy friendship with a man but he decides she owes him something different because of something he did for her or because of how he feels. This happens all the time, in real life; it’s very realistic. But in this story, it’s idealized into something that’s actually romantic instead of disgusting and the girl actually falls in love with the protagonist who behaves so boorishly. The movie doubles down on this by having Parzival tell Art3mis that he loves her literally the second time they meet in-game. And then it includes the incredibly cringe-worthy moment that was originally at the end of the book into the middle of the movie where Wade acts as though he is truly special because he is willing to look past the birthmark on Samantha’s face despite her assurances that it would cause him to hate her.
In real life, there probably are women who feel this way and they might even deal with rejection because of some flaw they or others perceive on a regular basis. And in real life, some of those women probably have been made to feel better by someone who saw past the “flaw” or didn’t view it as a flaw. But there is something slimy and self-aggrandizing about a story that was written by a man and starring a boy (and then written again by two men) that shows a woman swooning for a guy like this. Probably because being written by guys about guys it becomes all about how the guy is able to save the woman instead of how the woman becomes empowered. It might just be that some stories shouldn’t be told in certain ways by certain people unless they want to seem like enormous jackasses.
The movie tacks on to this issue with additional diversity problems. Yes, it features two women, one of whom is black, and a pair of Asian men. In the novel, at least, all of the Hi Five were top players and strong competitors with each other. Based on what else I’ve seen of Cline it wouldn’t surprise me to see that there were diversity issues or stereotypes at play that I missed when last I read the book but the movie definitely has them.
Hollywood’s problem with Asian actors continues as Daito and Shoto have barely a dozen lines of dialogue between them and they barely contribute to the story beyond being reliable side-kicks for our white hero. After being described as a terrific player on Planet Doom Aech is relegated to the role of mechanic and comic relief for the remainder of the movie. Art3mis in the book acted Parzival’s main rival, was a step or two ahead of him more than once, mostly stayed independent of him, and was determined to win the prize for herself so she could try to improve the world. In the movie, however, she gives up on her dreams, talents, and independence fairly early on in order to act as Parzival’s biggest cheerleader instead. In the end, every non-white, male character is subsumed to ensure the white male seems more important and competent than ever before.
There was one positive about this film. Alan Silvestri, of Back to the Future fame, wrote the musical score and perfectly implemented call-backs to that iconic 80’s franchise throughout the film. It was really a fantastic job. The visuals were also quite enjoyable, even if some of the scenes were so busy it was hard to even attempt to identify all the little easter eggs that had been included.
Unfortunately, it was not enough to save this adaptation of the original, flawed story. Given a chance to wipe clean some of the prior mistakes the movie exacerbates, instead. Given a chance to improve upon the prior successes the movie excises. While Ready Player One comes in a gorgeous package, if you scratch off that first layer you will find – much like in one of my favorite 80’s pop culture touchstones, V – that underneath is a slimy, disgusting lizard that just wants to steal all your resources and leave your home unfit for your own survival.