After long years of being considered unadaptable, Steven Spielberg has finally stepped up and taken a poke at Ernest Cline’s 2011 “Ready Player One.” While certainly far from a terrible film, and definitely a box office success story, Spielberg’s adaption leaves some to be desired.
In the fictional future, most people of the younger generation are part of the cyber-culture of the “Oasis” virtual reality game. In the game, the players choose their avatar and skills and complete various games and challenges inspired by pop culture and 80s nostalgia themes. After the creator of the game dies, it’s announced whoever finds the “Easter egg” he’s hidden in the game will inherit the keys to running the Oasis. After encountering another avatar named Artemis, our main protagonist, Wade Watts, steps into the shoes of the hero in a quest to find the Easter egg.
This movie is a frustrating one. The concept is so cool, and while definitely drawing on older movies/books of the same concept such as “Tron,” it just falls flat in execution. A lot of the story elements focus on Watts running into a challenge that’s never been solved in the history of the game, then after a minute of being stuck, he has some grand revelation and beats the challenge. Things such as winning a race against an organization that hires thousands of people to win it for them comes to mind.
The movie also takes great departures from the book to fit everything it can into its 2-hour block. The end of the book was an exciting climax where Watts had to decipher a problem involving Rush’s famous “2112” song. In the movie, the climax is predictable and a little boring by the time it comes around. They thankfully made Watts, played by Tye Sheridan, much less annoying and more normal, instead of an overweight and whiny nerd. The action was also spectacular, and made 3D actually watchable for the first time since I can remember. There are so many fun moments in the movie if you just sit back and enjoy it, and even book readers could love it.
The problems start to pile up when you think about it afterwards, however. The first and foremost problem is the amount of pop-culture references. In the book, each reference had a point, or was at least unique and fun. Watts drives the DeLorian from “Back to the Future,” the Iron Giant makes an appearance, things like that. Some of these make the film, but a lot are new ones that drive me up the wall because they are shoehorned in. Things like a horde of “HALO” Spartan’s in a battle against characters like Tracer from “Overwatch,” to “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” even the Overlook Hotel from “The Shining.” My favorite puzzles and challenges from the book that centered around films like “War Games” and “Blade Runner” were replaced by a CG advertisement for a modern video game. It felt like I was being blasted in the face with references for my generation to the point where it felt more like an ”I Spy” book in movie form. Everyone around me started the movie jumping and excitedly whispering whenever something they recognized popped on the screen, but by the end it was almost mind-numbing.
Not taking advantage of the 80’s references is the biggest sin this movie commits. Not only does it remove the original fun from the film, it also alienates the older audience that would have seen it. Anybody over 30 probably won’t like this film because it has nothing for them besides a car and a few references that clearly aren’t the focus of the film. Spielberg threw out the older audience to make a kids movie, and while it’s clearly working at the box office, it didn’t work on the screen.
All of this window-dressing and action just seeks to cover up something that usually shines through in a Spielberg film: the characters. Man are they boring. The book didn’t really give Spielberg anything to work with in that department, but this is the man who made an alien puppet likeable in “E.T.,” surely he could pull it off. He didn’t, and we’re left with characters who have no motivations, boring lines, and questionable backstories. The worst of all is Ben Mendelsohn’s bad guy, who is so stereotypical and cardboard that it made me cringe when he was on screen. Writing an interesting bad guy in a world filled with computer animated characters could be so easy, yet Spielberg went with the typical “Adults are evil and only want money” route. I’ve met rocks with more spunk to them than the bad guys in this movie.
The lack of interesting characters also reveals the lack of an interesting plot, which is literally “kids are the future but adults want money” blah blah blah. Instead of using cool elements and challenges from the book to at least make the basic plot look tolerable, they stripped those out for newer references. While kids may not understand the scene from the book set in “Blade Runner”’s Los Angeles, removing it from the movie just created a hole that nothing could fill. After a while of watching the movie, I felt like a studio exec from Warner Bros. was beating me over the head with a book called “2018 references to appear cool”.
By the end of the movie, I couldn’t really decide if I enjoyed it or not. I chose this over the new “Pacific Rim” movie, which even now I regret. The movie is shallow and predictable, filled with CG characters and obvious plot lines. You know exactly how it ends in the first five minutes, the stuff in-between is for eye candy. While a movie comes along every once in a while that is fun to just turn your brain off and watch, this one isn’t it. Instead I just wanted to know if they even read the script before they put the actors in front of a camera.
While not one of Spielberg’s best work, he has proven once again he knows how to cash in at the box office. With over $40 million in one weekend, this movie is surely on track for a big payday. Whether or not you contribute to that payday is up to you, but if I had to advise, I’d say wait for the Blu-Ray release. Then you can skip the awful romance scenes.