Steven Spielberg’s version of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is probably the best adaptation the book could have hoped for, and that’s not necessarily for the best. It captures that ripping journey through an endless deluge of pop culture touchstones onto film, but it also highlights how woefully superficial the story and characters are. If you’re just in the market for a good time, though, it’s hard to say this isn’t for you.
On its surface, it would sound like Cline’s work was made for the screen, the techno-future basis incredibly prescient for 2011. In the near future, the world is buckling under the weight of its exploding population, a combination of environmental degradation, social dysfunction, and economic torpidity leaving people languishing in dank, cramped poverty. One such person is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teen stuck in the stacks of towering, inhospitable trailer homes.
He spends the majority of his time inside a virtual reality world called OASIS, the most popular form of entertainment in the world given that it is an escape into another world that isn’t so depressing. But he and so many others have a goal: to find OASIS creator James Halliday’s (Mark Rylance) Easter Egg and claim Halliday’s inheritance and company, essentially guaranteeing an escape from a slow and unremarkable death in the stacks. Many have tried and failed for many, many years, but Wade has one special advantage.
Wade, you see, is obsessed with the 1980s, which just so happens to be the key overlap in Halliday’s Easter Egg hunt. Dungeons & Dragons, WarGames, Pac-Man—hell, even Zork. And this is where it seems prime for this text-to-screen conversion. On paper, it’s overwhelmingly hard to make these references feel anything else but masturbatory. Granted, it’s fun for many readers with an affinity for those things to find someone else write about them in an odd and interesting way, but it can be rather on the nose.
It reads like the literary equivalent of an arena comic just yelling pop references to get laughs. But, put into motion, it all feels like potential glances across the bow until one catches you right in the face, and it’s dang delectable. With Spielberg’s ability to inject dimensionality and wonder into otherwise mundane scenes, it works with aplomb. And better yet, with his legendary cachet in the industry, he has managed to cram everything into this movie. Dissecting screenshots from this film is going to keep the Internet busy for months.
To that end, Spielberg strips out the book’s delirious and chunky word vomit of describing how Wade unceremoniously crammed KITT into the Back to the Future DeLorean and lets the traversal from plot point to plot point take the forefront. It lacks any amount of subtlety, opting for narration over nuanced storytelling, and delivering character motivation with a misdirecting, magician-like hand wave. The world exists, things happen, and then they keep going.
It often feels like Wade and his cohorts Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe) are embarking on step after step of this hunt just to do it. Eventually reason does manifest, but very little of it finds purchase on these characters. They feel like our own OASIS avatars used to explore this movie world, mere shells for us to reflect our own wide-eyed expressions at the wonders before us and them.
Cline, though, with Zak Penn in writing this adaptation has made some choice updates to the source material. Plenty more 80s references are stuffed in there that wouldn’t have worked as well in the book, but they’ve also fleshed out Halliday’s backstory more, giving it a grave and tender weight. They even manage to inject a slightly deeper theme about retreat and escape, but make no mistake: this is a straight up and down story about categorically good heroes facing off against irredeemably evil bad guys.
It would have been nice to see a more affecting—or at least more aware—depiction of emotional heft. It was a problem with the book and it’s still a problem here, especially with two key moments later in the story. It all feels like the characters aren’t necessarily invested in what they’re doing or why but more in helping the author see the story through to the end via a relentless storm of deus ex machina.
It’s hard to ignore that the stunningly dull romance between Wade and Art3mis is the only contiguous and manageable drive of the story. It’s an insulting sort of wish-fulfillment for both men, women, and any other non-heteronormative relationship participant, which can only bring to mind Cline’s troubling history online. If that’s reason enough to compel you to not give money to this production, that’s fair. And if it’s not, keep it in mind as you watch how Cline has constructed this flat and unfulfilling romance.
This is a movie that contains zero surprises, delivering exactly what you think it will deliver at the pace and quantity you’d expect. That may sound boring (and at points, it definitely is) but with Spielberg’s hand at the wheel—the same hand that created the things Cline obsesses over—it manages to be a fun and occasionally thrilling ride through an eye-bleedingly slick world. Ready Player One isn’t going to change your mind about anything, but I suppose it doesn’t really need to.
Final Score: 7 out of 10