Ready Player One

In case you’re unfamiliar with the source material, the book was originally pitched as Willy Wonka meets The Matrix. In 2045, the real world has kind of gone to hell, and people spend most of their time in an online virtual reality called the Oasis. The creator of this world, James Halliday has died and left his fortune and control of the Oasis to whoever can complete a scavenger hunt and series of challenges in the virtual world based around the ‘80s culture of his childhood. Wade Watts, a high school student from the trailer park towers in Ohio, is obsessed with this challenge, but has to go up against a sinister corporation, IOI. In the game he teams up with a group of people he’s never met, his best friend Aech, rival Art3mis, and two “brothers” Daito and Shoto.

The film adaptation of Ready Player One takes some huge liberties with the story. I think that’s perfect. The novel is great for fantasy world-building—dense with minutiae, geeky references, and technical details. The film captured the essence of that, while focusing on the things that matter most—the overarching themes, characters and action.

“…I do miss some of the geek deep cuts that had to go by the wayside to make the film more mainstream.”

I find it especially fascinating that the thing the book so so famous for, 80s references, have been stripped way down in the film. Gone are the recreations of War Games or debates over the finer points of Family Ties, and In their place are references that span a greater time period, from the 1933’s King Kong to today’s Minecraft. While this lessens the feeling that you’re getting an unadulterated snoot of pure Cline, I think it is the right move, as it will give the film a more timeless feel. And there are still plenty of references to Rubik’s cubes, Buckaroo Banzai, Back to the Future, and the like.

The core of the book, the broad themes, are preserved, and boy are they ever relevant at the moment.  We’ve got a kid fearing for his life while taking on huge corporations. That seemed almost over the top to me in 2010, but I’ll be dammed if the Parkland teens aren’t going through the same thing.  And we’ve got a massive company who you cede your privacy to so you can connect with friends online, which could not be better timed as we all grapple with the runaway train that is Facebook. Of course there is an element of a chance that these two stories dominating the news overlap with the ideas in Ready Player One, but I’d argue that it is not entirely a coincidence. It’s been obvious the direction we’ve been headed for years, as we hand over more and more of our lives to corporations bigger than nation-states. As is true in any great science fiction, Ernie and the filmmakers have just taken issues that we’re grappling with in the real world, and taken them to the extreme under a thin disguise.  

Some of the book’s more intellectual puzzles are replaced with more action-heavy riddles. Instead of simply recreating War Games. now you have to survive inside a horror film.  And one puzzle now ostensibly takes the form of a car race. These are are completely appropriate for a film adaptation, and they still manage to preserve the fun and spirit of the source. It isn’t strength or speed or twitchy fingers that saves the day, but deep study, wit, and grit.  Surprisingly, the characters still do have to play a video game, though it is one with thematic resonance.

“These guys literally went out in the desert to dig up the history of video games. And yeah, it is a video game of a Spielberg movie!”

The film has more for the characters to do in the real world, which makes perfect sense since we really want to see the actor’s performances. Tye Sheridan is an ideal Wade Watts — he’s got the right mix of earnestness and vulnerability the role requires, while still being tough and savvy.  Olivia Cooke also brings the grit that Art3mis has on the page, while managing to maintain some geeky charm. i don’t want to give away who plays Aech, but the choice is equally superb. My favorite bit of casting though is Ben Mendelsohn as Sorrento, the head of IOI. He’s got a David Miscavige vibe to him that is just spot on. i don’t know if I would have cast Simon Pegg as Ogden Morrow, the Oasis cofounder, but I’m glad they did.  He’s a geek’s geek and an international treasure. Mark Rylance isn’t the picture of James Halliday i had in my head while reading the book, but i love his take on the character, as someone clearly on the Autism spectrum, someone more comfortable with computers than people, and a guy who’s so into escapism he build an entire virtual world for it.

There are a few clear improvements in the film over the book.  The role of Art3mis is enhanced and better fleshed out. Now she’s part of a resistance movement, which brings an another level of resonance to the real-world drama of 2018.  Wade’s research isn’t just playing video games and watching old movies and TV shows anymore, it now consists of going to a kind of library that houses the virtual memories of James Halliday.  And some of the challenges have more of an emotional connection to growing as a person than they do to just knowing trivia or obscure 80s references.

But the huge thing the film brings is that this is an adventure movie from the all-time master of them, Steven Spielberg. Nobody does action like him — grounded in heart first and foremost, but also so clearly paced with exactly the right mix of establishing shots to sell the geography of the scene, and close-ups to keep us with the characters. Every scene moves along both the plot and characters, while at the same time introducing us to this expansive universe jam-packed with detail.

This isn’t to say the film is perfect. A hell of a lot of character development had to be dropped to squeeze the proceedings into two hours and 19 minutes. As a result, we get the shorthand version of courtship and romance that is only barely adequate, and borderline cheesy. And I do miss some of the geek deep cuts that had to go by the wayside to make the film more mainstream.

“There are a few clear improvements in the film over the book…”

There’s another element to both versions of Ready Player One that is seldom talked about, but I find myself thinking about all the time. As we’ve lowered taxes, decreased regulations, and passed laws to favor the rich, wealth has become more and more concentrated in our society. Things like the internet and the space program, created by public funding that we all had a say in, are being replaced by institutions like Facebook and Space X, dominated by billionaire founders. This can work if the founders are beneficent, but this idea that we have to cater to the personal whims of a single rich and powerful individual is corrosive to a democratic society.  Neither the film nor the book particularly play up these points, but they’re part of the subtext. It is something I’d like to see addressed in the sequel. And yes, Ernie is working on what surely must be called Ready Player Two.

In the end, I’m thrilled both versions of Ready Player One exist — the film for the visuals, the actors, and just the fact that it is a return to epic adventure from Spielberg, but also the book for its megadose of Ernie Cline world-building. I can’t wait for more books and movies in this universe.

Ready Player One (2018) Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Ernie Cline and Zak Penn. Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Philip Zhao, and Win Morisaki.

8 out of 10

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