Percy Jackson & The Olympians. Eragon. Harry Potter (In some ways. I’m allowed to geek out about the finer details, okay?) The names on this list have something in common — they’ve let me down as a fan of the source material. Hell, even Transformers had more merit when it was just a collective heap of plastic in my living room. I’ve quietly been a huge nerd about these worlds for as long as I’ve been able to read, and like many I’ve had my hopes and dreams dashed when either A) a movie failed to placate my insatiable hunger for quality storytelling, B) a movie completely neglected huge chunks of the source material, or C) a movie was accurate to the book but made me realize that maybe they were better off as words on paper (Maze Runner, Hunger Games, City of Ember… I’m ashamed to say Divergent as well). So as I, the writer, attempt to dazzle you, the reader, with my references to books you’ve also read, it becomes worth discussing another collection of pop culture nostalgia- “Ready Player One.”
I became obsessed with this book (like 600 pages in one night obsessed) a few days prior to the release of the movie. It’s been a while since I’d become so lost in a piece of literature, and the euphoria I felt took me right back to my earlier days as a reader. Sadly, I was not alive for the 80s (or even really allowed to play video games as a kid) so most of the more obscure references were lost on me. Still, Earnest Cline’s obvious passion for the subject (and skill as a writer) told me enough about the world he grew up in that I was able to relate. The narrative is brilliant; a modern-day interpretation of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory mixed with a setting as gloomy as Blade Runner. This book was both incredibly dark & existential and exciting… dare I even say romantic? The mixed message of “Love video games!” and “Put down the controller and go outside!” drew criticism from readers during the book’s initial release phase, but I took this as a really sincere statement about the contrast between our passions and our obligations — it can be wonderful to get lost in your own world, but you have to be aware of the reality around you. Growing up means realizing the importance of balance. For me (and many others) books used to be an incredible escape, and so it’s all the more fitting that “Ready Player One” brought my nostalgia for reading back.
Enough about my childhood — we’ve got a movie to tear apart. Be advised, there will be spoilers for both the movie and the book ahead.
Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” got a few things right. Firstly, this movie is gorgeous. The entire landscape of the OASIS was exactly what I had hoped to see. Only a few minutes in we’re treated to a tracking shot through Minecraft, Star Wars, and dozens of other beautiful worlds. The hybrid of realistic and cartoonish CGI is fine, considering the setting. Also on the short list of positives was the avatar of Nathan Sorrento, the corporate antagonist who wanted to turn the entire OASIS into a virtual Times Square of advertising. Sorrento looked like a badass ToonTown villain (ordinarily an oxymoron, I know, but they pulled it off); a businessman who meant business. Don’t get me wrong, his character was downright laughable at best and cringe-worthy at worst… but they nailed the look. His appearance in the MechaGodzilla suit was one of the most appreciated moments of the movie and also worth noting. Lastly, James Halliday’s character was wonderfully quirky and his dialogue was one of the most genuinely humorous parts of an otherwise poorly script.
The largest fault- and it’s a big one- lies with the tone of this movie. Plenty was changed in the adaptation to screen, but I’ve learned not to nitpick about these things. Watching Parzival play an arcade game quietly with a giant undead monster for the Copper Key would have made for a great sight gag, but the cinematography and action of the movie’s equivalent plot point (a massive, deadly race not unlike the 2nd level of Spy Kids 3) were a sight to behold (other changes, like effectively copy-pasting I-R0k’s name into an entirely different character, were downright despicable. Making TJ Miller voice act only added insult to injury.) What bothers me more than any change could is that this movie isn’t dark at all. When the book’s Wade describes the shitty hand he’s been dealt in the shitty world humanity’s made, the reader gets a real taste for meaninglessness. We’re all governed by the belief that humanity is constantly and ceaselessly making progress. Manifest Destiny is alive and well in the 21st century, with Elon Musk, Jeff Besos, and NASA all set on getting humanity into space. In the world of “Ready Player One” (set in 2044, mind you, which plenty of people alive today will live to reach), humanity wasn’t good enough. We succumbed to the lure of fossil fuels and ignored climate change for too long, and now the human race is on a course to die out. The movie does acknowledge this degree of despair with one line, perhaps the best of the movie: “I was born after people stopped trying to solve the world’s problems and started trying to outlive them.” Like so much of this movie, though, it’s treated casually as a bit of exposition before getting back to the hijinks at hand.
Comparatively, the book spends a good 200 pages outlining the numbing despair of reality. When Wade realizes that he’s been living on the same planet as the Copper Key for years, everything changes. If nothing else matters, then suddenly the hunt for the Easter Egg gives Wade a sense of meaning in a world where purpose is a resource in short supply. It’s a complicated narrative driven by a very mature theme about choosing to exist long after the collective good don’t have a reason to. By contrast, this movie is clearly marketed for a wider age range to justify the price tag on the special effects. This feels like a poor choice on Spielberg’s part- plenty of fans are turning out for R-rated flicks like Deadpool. The concept of watering down a source material to justify a PG-13 rating won’t be necessary much longer.
At the end of the day, plenty of people who haven’t read the book will still have gone and seen the movie. Plenty of book fans may have found enjoyment in the movie, too, and I won’t knock that. As a disappointed reader, though, I’ll take what I’ve learned from this excursion- sometimes 600 pages and an active imagination is the only kind of movie you’ll need.