One of the common gripes with Ernest Cline’s phenomenally popular novel Ready Player One is that it merely pays lip service to the retro pop culture it endlessly references. Simply listing off things from the ’80s that people love is a shallow way to evoke nostalgia, and it fails to capture anything substantive about the movies, music, and video games being referenced. Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One adaptation tumbles down the same pitfall (ahem), and yet, like the book, it manages to be pretty compelling anyway.
Set in 2045, Ready Player One follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) and his friends (Olivia Cooke’s Artemis, Lena Waithe’s Aech, Win Morisaki’s Daito, and Philip Zhao’s Sho) on their quest to win control of a virtual world called The Oasis. The concept of a VR app that combines video games with social space is already pretty familiar to us in 2018, and in many ways the movie’s vision of the future lines up with what we might expect this stuff to really look like in a couple of decades.
There are omni-directional treadmills, full-body haptic feedback suits, and many more hardware accessories that let people interact with The Oasis. Because basically everyone in the world–regardless of age, gender, race, or any other demographic factors–accesses The Oasis, the differences in the technology poor and wealthy people use is a constant factor throughout the movie. Wade upgrades his gear as soon as he starts accruing cash, while his deadbeat step-uncle blows all their savings on in-game upgrades trying to win a valuable artifact, which he’d hoped would pay for a new house.
Within this world, the game’s creator, James Halliday–played by a slightly uncanny-looking Mark Rylance–hid three keys that will unlock his ultimate Easter egg: a series of hidden steps that will grant the winning “Gunter” (egg hunters) total, legal control of The Oasis (making them filthy rich in the process). If you’ll pardon another reference, it becomes the Holy Grail for an entire generation of gamers.
All this setup is fertile ground for a story about an average kid who rises above his circumstances, finds inner strength, defeats the evil corporation, and gets the girl–it’s the familiar hero’s journey through and through. The fact that Wade’s strength comes from his obsessive knowledge of latter-half 20th century pop culture only makes it even more appropriate for Spielberg to have grabbed the reins on this adaptation.
Ready Player One‘s entire nostalgia-invoking concept works much better in a visual medium. Half the movie is entirely CG, and the motion-captured performances and general graphics and effects are incredible. One extended sequence set in the iconic location of a beloved horror movie is particularly excellent. This is the kind of movie you want to see on the biggest screen possible, and in 3D, if that’s your thing (I saw it in RealD, and it looked fantastic).
The movie also improves on the book in massive ways, including cutting out an entire act that did the plot and characters no favors in the source material (Wade thankfully no longer spends a large chunk of the story stalking Artemis against her wishes). Overall, it does an incredible job making the story accessible. Viewers with no knowledge of contemporary VR technology or video game culture will be able to fully enjoy Ready Player One, which goes to great lengths to explain the basic concept of The Oasis and how it fits into this futuristic world. While you’re engrossed in the movie, it’s easy to believe that the fight to control The Oasis is the most important thing there is–that Wade and his friends would devote their lives to it, while the evil IOI (Innovative Online Industries), led by Ben Mendelsohn’s villainous but weirdly likable Nolan Sorrento, would fight with murderous, Gestapo-like ruthlessness to stop these meddling kids from winning.
There is a subset of the audience who won’t find it so easy to swallow, though, and will begin questioning whether anything in Ready Player One actually makes sense the second the credits start to roll. If you’re into video games or gaming culture and understand how massive online games like World of Warcraft actually work, the poorly thought out rules Ready Player One sets up for its virtual world simply won’t add up.
For example, the movie establishes over and over that if your avatar in The Oasis dies, you lose all the items and money you’ve ever acquired (your stuff explodes from your dying virtual body in a satisfying shower of gold and trinkets which can then be scooped up by other nearby players). T.J. Miller, in his hilarious portrayal of a villainous mercenary known as “i-R0k,” worries about dying in a climactic scene, since he’s carrying 10 years’ worth of loot and plunder around with him.
Narratively, this gives everything stakes, and it’s effective for that. But within the game world, that doesn’t make sense–there’s really no way to store your valuable items or money for safekeeping? That’s not how video games work. And what about a character like Aech, who has an entire, massive workshop full of stuff?
There are many more nitpicks like that throughout the movie. Can players attack each other anywhere? What stops every area of The Oasis from turning into a bloodbath? Similarly, if you’ve ever seen some of the lengths players go to find Easter eggs in real video games, the solutions to Ready Player One‘s world-shaking puzzles will actually seem quaint in comparison.
Yes, the details might be changed, but the movie suffers from the same problems the book did. It’s undeniably fun to see squads of Master Chiefs, Ninja Turtles, Battletoads, Overwatch characters, and countless more join in an epic battle against an evil corporation. But those references are almost entirely shallow as can be; when one character pulls out a Lancer from Gears of War, it shoots green lasers, and when another chucks the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch at his foes, he doesn’t even bother to count to five–err, I mean three.
Hardcore gamers will also likely cringe at the way Ready Player One casually throws in gaming language in ways that sound totally unrealistic, like one character earnestly calling another a “noob” in the middle of an actual, physical confrontation, or saying “I’ve seen all her walkthroughs [and] her Twitch streams.” Um, you mean you watch her on Twitch? Nobody would say it like that.
And yet, Ready Player One is crazy enjoyable anyway. It’s all too easy for those who actually know games to see through the cracks in Ready Player One‘s virtual world, just like it was in the book. But that’s a side effect of what makes this thing so universally appealing: In ditching the arcane layers of rules and conventions necessary for real video game worlds to actually function, this hyper-nerdy story becomes far more accessible. If you can get past the nitpicks, there’s a really fun movie underneath. And if it leaves the finer details ambiguous or botches a reference to some cherished movie or game along the way–well, we’ll always have the originals.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Spielbergian story of triumph over evil||Lacks real understanding of gaming culture|
|Highly accessible no matter your nerdiness||Leaves many references only surface deep|
|The virtual world of The Oasis looks great||Fails to establish game rules that make sense|
|Fun to count the endless pop culture references|
|Makes smart changes from the book|