At one point, I heard someone say that Ready Player One is Twilight for boys. It certainly seems like a fair comparison, in terms of the broad strokes: they’re both wish-fulfillment stories featuring Mary Sue protagonists falling into unintentionally disturbing romances. Ernest Cline’s debut novel has been derided not only for this, but its masturbatory self-references — one infamous passage circulating around the web highlights a scene in which central character Wade Watts meticulously, uselessly lists off all the 80s-relevant accessories he’s added to his virtual DeLorean. (“’See? It’s an awful book!” the Internet cries.)
It’s morbidly amusing to consider that Steven Spielberg directed an adaptation of Twilight for boys. And then I read how his wife Kate Capshaw convinced him to do it after listening to the audiobook, which reminded me that despite its flaws, the book still speaks on some level to the people who lived through the time period that the book and its subsequent film heavily pull from: the 80s.
However, that aspect of Ready Player One is significantly toned down in the film in favor of emphasizing video games. Although big 80s musical hits are peppered throughout the soundtrack, the film is less about celebrating neon and big hair than about cramming as many video game characters on-screen as possible. Look! It’s Sonic! And Tracer! And…the Arkham Knight? Seriously? Who the hell’s going to be cosplaying as that overhyped disappointment in 2045?
Don’t get distracted by these constant references, though. If you’re looking for a certain character you love to show up, you’ll be scanning the screen incessantly and completely miss the plot. Besides, if you’re hoping for the camera to linger for more than five seconds on a recognizable figure from pop-culture that’s not a giant robot, guess what? Yeah.
Right, now that that’s out of the way, time to address the story and characters. As Wade explains over more exposition than ought to be acceptable, it’s the future. And the future sucks. To escape said suckage, people escape into a massive online virtual reality called the Oasis, created by the awkward James Halliday (played by recent Spielberg collaborator Mark Rylance). When Halliday dies, a posthumously-released video reveals that he’s hidden three keys inside the Oasis, and whoever finds them all and the Easter egg they unlock will inherit half a trillion in stock and get to control the Oasis.
Naturally, everyone wants it: Wade, his best friend Aech (whose avatar is a hulking troll-like figure who has pylons and springs for intestines), resistance leader Art3mis and samurai partners Daito and Sho. They reunite in order to stop Electronic Ahem, I mean, Innovative Online Industries (IOI) from getting the egg first so they can bombard players with ads and micro-transactions.
The characters as a whole get a noticeable upgrade from the book, to some degree. In the original book, Wade stalks Art3mis in a manner that’s supposed to be endearing, but is anything but. As a trade-off, we get a decidedly less creepy romance between the two… one that develops across a couple days. It’s stupid in Disney movies and it’s still stupid if Spielberg does it. As a result, Art3mis’ insistence that their online relationship isn’t genuine because they’ve never met — the only thing this story has going for it in terms of thematic relevance — seems a lot more like she’s trying to hide the fact that she’s got a port-wine stain on her face instead of a genuine critique of VR’s pitfalls. Well, poo.
I can’t say much about Aech without spoiling a decent chunk of the plot, but I’m happy to see said character’s identity and background isn’t used to deliver the same hilariously awkward and forced commentary as the book. It’s also nice to see Daito and Sho get some increased importance, even though we come away knowing next to nothing about them and instead wondering how the hell it’s possible that all these pivotal characters seem to be living in Columbus, Ohio without ever meeting each other.
Oh, and there’s the villains. Ben Mendelsohn’s fine. He’s a corporate dick, and he’s good at it. Although I can’t help but laugh at his main henchwoman, just because of her name: F’nale Zandor. And that’s her real name; we never see her in the Oasis. It’s like screenwriters Penn and Cline came up with a fantasy name on the spot and said to themselves, “That’s good, sounds scary!”
All right, I’m going on a tangent here. What works? Well, the Oasis looks awesome. Everything looks real, but not too real. It’s a borderline uncanny valley, which works for the film’s video-game setting. The beginning chase sequence involving the likes of the DeLorean, King Kong and the Jurassic Park T-rex is a masterwork of speed and destruction. The final battle is a lot of fun, although too short. As cool as it is to see giant robots fighting each other, for the love of God, if you’re going to show us the battle to save… the world? Don’t end it after 10 minutes and go on for another 20 after that.
I have a feeling that, in the future, I will watch three sequences of Ready Player One on YouTube: the initial race, the horror movie tribute scene and the final battle. Because all those parts are insanely fun, and everything else is as expendable as toenail clippings. Which really stinks, because there could have been a great story here, instead of boy-meets-girl blah.
Alex Wehrung is very upset over the lack of Bloodborne references.