Getty Images/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration Written by Cameron Fairchild
Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One is dumb. A 400-page treatise on how cool all the pop culture stuff from the 80s (and the 90s and early 2000s and 70s and 60s and whenever, I guess) that barely characterizes its obnoxious protagonist and sort of scrapes a story together out of WarGames reenactments and life-or-death games of Pac Man, Ready Player One feels more like the easiest 80s trivia night you’ve ever attended than an actual book. Backlash to the novel after its original release was swift; today, comparisons between protagonist Wade Watts and GamerGate cronies are easily drawn, and the overall toxic masculinity of widespread nerd culture is often woven into critiques of the novel. This certainly appears in the book: the unimpressive protagonist wins the hearts and minds of his friends by spouting trivia and spends roughly a third of the book moping over his virtual ex-girlfriend, whom he eventually, inevitably “earns” through his uninteresting adventures in a video game world called The Oasis. It’s a power fantasy, one that grows increasingly infantile the more Batman is invoked. The number of times a plot point in RPO is resolved by Wade having seen a movie 84 times or playing 300 hours of the classic arcade game Joust become laughable at best and stupidly improbable at worst- where does Wade find the time to watch every 80s movie three dozen times? Ready Player One is dumb.
Steven Spielberg is one of the most cerebral entertainers in American cinema. From pitch-perfect adventures like Raiders of the Lost Ark to his more serious contemporary works like The Post and Bridge of Spies, the man knows how to tell stories in multiple genres with intelligence, empathy, and tension. For him to have taken on a project based on a property as in love with his work as Ready Player One is fascinating. Wade Watts, and by extension Ernest Cline, heap praise onto Spielberg, his oeuvre, and his influence, and it would be extremely easy for the director to take it at face value and craft a film that expounds on his greatness, his iconic filmography, and the way he shaped the blockbuster from its humble beginnings to its garish modern existence. Spielberg’s Ready Player One instead manages to elevate its source material in almost every conceivable way possible, dismissing as much of its uncritical gaze as possible while gifting its story a relatively credible thematic through line about the dangers of nostalgia, living in the past, and mooning over the things you create to the detriment of caring for yourself or the people around you. Major plot events are changed from trivia battles to more visually interesting fare, such as massive races and a puzzle inside of a brilliantly (maybe heretically) rendered Overlook Hotel from The Shining. It captures a lot of the fun and possibility of the source material in a way the book itself deeply lacked. It’s also still really dumb.
Maybe it’s the fact that at one point, a character shouts “It’s Mecha-Godzilla!” and then Mecha-Godzilla fistfights with the Iron Giant. Maybe it’s the fact that, however deep the thematic connection between the inert, daydreaming Wade and the inert, daydreaming creator of the Oasis, James Halliday, there are still Battletoads from Battletoads coming over the hill to fight for freedom. Spielberg is able to put a stop to the never-ending lists of pop culture touchstones the novel is notorious for by just showing those pop culture touchstones on film, but RPO is still beholden to a world that, while noted throughout the novel and film for its limitless capabilities, feels completely hindered by its reliance on stuff that we’ve already seen before in better properties. The Oasis feels claustrophobic, at times literally boxed in by a giant King Kong or crowded by a dimly-lit war between well-known images stripped of their context. The Iron Giant is nothing more than a literal vehicle for our heroes to do some damage with. These things are utilities, meant to fill seats and generate the same skin-deep nostalgic feeling the movie wants to critique. It throws any kind of thematic cohesion immediately out the window.
Not that the film doesn’t try hard to work against its source material’s wholehearted embrace of the escapist video game at its center. For example, every instance of a character aping the prose of Cline’s pop culture lists is treated as a joke by the other characters in the film, often getting undercut or, at one point, being framed as a soulless, pandering exercise in repetition by the film’s villain (Ben Mendelsohn). In a particularly brilliant piece of casting, Mark Rylance plays Oasis founder James Halliday as a spotty, barely-together genius who both resents his invention and fundamentally cannot live without it. Rylance has an endearingly gentle screen presence, and subverts it brilliantly to convey the absolute wisp of a man at the heart of RPO’s warning about the lure and destruction of giving your life to the past. If only Wade, played sluggishly by Tye Sheridan, was able to match Rylance’s deadpan, as Wade’s arc—to essentially overcome his Halliday-esque flaws on the way to saving the Oasis—is dulled in execution.
That said, it’s hard for any message or character to stand out in the absolute sea of CGI on display. The scenes in the Oasis take up most of the film, and seem oddly, darkly lit throughout. The place feels alien in more ways than one, but the dark blues of the majority of its character and set designs, coupled with the fact that it houses the majority of the film’s action scenes, cement it as a fundamentally chaotic and unfriendly place to inhabit. At two and a half hours in length, RPO is exhausting, and its never-ending effects parade doesn’t help. The real-world scenes fare much better in terms of overall visual clarity—everything from the villainous IOI headquarters to the stacks of RV’s that Wade inhabits are well-realized. Any frame overcrowded by myriad popular 80s characters and generic CGI cityscapes is a rarity in RPO, but always welcome.
Ready Player One tries its best to turn a bad book into a better movie, and while in many ways it succeeds, it remains a fairly middle-of-the-road adventure story that’s just a little too in love with its protagonist and a little too crowded. I haven’t even touched on the fact that the film takes place in a dystopian future that goes almost entirely unremarked on by the film, and everything is made to seem fine by the film’s end, which is too saccharine and convenient by half. By working with a story based around and metatextually cribbing from his own works, Spielberg can’t quite find a way to make a film that stacks up with the hits that got him here in the first place.
CAMERON FAIRCHILD | Unready | KXSU Arts Reporter