More than the sum of its chockablock references, Ready Player One improves on its polarizing source material by leaps and bounds.
People come to the OASIS for all the things they can do, but they stay for all the things they can be.
Sometime between the 2011 publishing of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and today, the world changed. The Austin native had written an entertaining piece of fantasy that celebrated all the pop culture ephemera he loved, and didn’t bother to cater to any reader that didn’t fall within his own specific Venn diagram. I’ve only read the book once, and I remember enjoying it — really for the plotting and the endorphin shot of “I know that!” that came a few times a page, and not for Cline’s actual writing, which was frequently awful. But the story propelled me to the end in just a couple of days, and I was satisfied.
And then the promise of “the geeks inheriting the earth,” juiced by new successes from Marvel, Star Wars, and the exploding gaming industry, turned sour. “Gamergate” shed a light on a nasty, writhing subculture of gatekeeping internet trolls who used misogyny (and more) to abuse and defame anyone who didn’t meet their arbitrary standards for purity, that they just didn’t like, or was a woman. It seems like we’re only now emerging from that tempestuous period — or the deplorables simply found new targets, like Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, or the bizarre efforts to tank the Rotten Tomatoes “Audience Scores” for black filmmakers Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler. This is not an easy problem to solve, and the scorn placed on this tribe of navel-gazing, territorial pop culture warriors is well-earned.
So when news broke that the long-gestating adaptation of Ready Player One was picked up by Steven Spielberg, the most popular director of all time whose films frequently cameo in the book, the general reaction was dismay: time had not been kind to Cline’s indulgent puffery, and his most obnoxious passages were Tweeted and passed around with glee. The novel is far from a manifesto for nerd toxicity — its ultimate message is that “the real world is still better,” after all — but it was used as a representation of what’s wrong with the culture. It also didn’t help that Cline’s follow-up novel, Armada, was a disaster on every level, doubling-down on the author’s worst impulses (references for the sake of them, cringeworthy dialogue, treating the girl as a prize to be won and not as a person), further poisoning any justification for the project.
The consensus seemed to be that the only people who would enjoy the film either endorsed Cline’s suspiciously retrograde attitudes (whatever you do, do not look up his poetry), or simply had bad taste. But now that it’s finally out, who is Ready Player One for?
I actually think that’s the wrong question. Rather, consider: Do you trust Steven Spielberg?
Set in 2045 Columbus, Ohio, the world is a pretty bleak place. Through economic and environmental factors, most everyone in the world has retreated to the OASIS, a virtual-reality internet space where you can be anyone and do anything — like climb Mount Everest with Batman, get into a chaotic battle for coins and magic items, or just hang out with your friends at a zero-gravity dance club. It’s the life’s work of James Halliday (Spielberg muse Mark Rylance, who’s a delight as a man who never seems sure what room he’s in), who made the OASIS open and free for the world to access.
The film picks up five years after Halliday’s death, when the eccentric creator launched a global hunt for three keys, cleverly hidden, that will grant one lucky user not just Halliday’s trillion-dollar inheritance, but control of the OASIS itself in the form of a golden egg. The best way to describe the story is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory set in The Matrix, with gallons of 1980s nostalgia. Competitors (or “gunters”) have spent the intervening years poring over every aspect of Halliday’s life for clues, absorbing his favorite things as their own, and quizzing each other on arcane details about everything from Duran Duran albums to the most obscure Atari games. It can be assumed that for normal people pop culture has indeed moved forward since then, or at least since 2018, but if it wasn’t relevant to Halliday, it’s not relevant here.
Our gunter is an orphan named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, collector of indie XP for Mud and The Tree of Life); he has a blue-skinned, wavy-haired avatar named Parzival, who oozes the cool confidence he sorely lacks in real life. Doing all his research from his elevated doublewide, Wade’s obsession with Halliday pays off when he stumbles into the clue for the first key, involving a ludicrously dangerous auto race in a digital New York City complete with King Kong. He quickly gains allies, including the hulking Aech (Master of None’s Lena Waithe, to spoil an obvious twist) and kindred spirit Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), as well as enemies like Nolan Sorrento (Rogue One’s Ben Mendelsohn). Sorrento runs IOI, a nefarious conglomerate that wants control of the OASIS for their own nefarious purposes, and has no qualms about using violence in the real world to get it.
I had my expectations well and truly managed, but the short version (laughable 900 words in, but here you go) is that Ready Player One easily beat them. It’s fun. Incredibly fun, in fact. It’s the rare 140-minute film that never drags, and it’s obvious how much the legendary director, himself a “lifelong gamer” as he told the premiere audience at South by Southwest, is enjoying playing around in his own personal toy chest.* And the digital environments allow for some staggering and inventive staging, like Minority Report lensed with the freedom of Tintin; Spielberg’s signature active camera propels the viewer as much as the story’s scavenger hunt structure. Even at 71, there’s still no one better at this kind of blockbuster filmmaking than the man who invented the blockbuster — and one sequence in the middle of the film is perhaps the ballsiest concept he’s ever attempted.
*Spielberg was in post-production on this film while shooting The Post; it’s not quite the one-two punch of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List 25 years ago, but the master remains the master.
Even better, it ditches the worst elements of the novel. Cooke’s character has strength, agency, and an actual backstory, and her vibrant performance reveals an inner life that Cline never bothered to explore. She even calls Wade out early on his misconceptions: “You see what I want you to see. You know what I want you to know.” He loves his idea of her, not the real person behind the anime eyes and Akira motorcycle. And unlike too many internet harassers who turn violent when rebuffed, he’s willing to learn that lesson, whereas in the book, he gets petulant and creepy while trying to “win back” someone he was never even dating. It’s a desperately needed change that goes a long way.
On the stylistic side, most of the film’s easter eggs are exactly that, individual cherries on top of the sundae, instead of being painfully spelled out on the page as a laundry list of shibboleths. The references here aren’t nerd gatekeeping but an invitation to dive in and play, because what the OASIS represents isn’t mere nostalgia, but the opportunity for self-expression. All of us who have wink-y user names, gamer tags, or avatars should already identify with the urge to trumpet our interests in hopes of finding likeminded souls — it’s not about reveling in the past, or exploiting someone else’s creations, but finding meaning in the connections we make with other people, even if they begin over Buckaroo Banzai.
That’s not to say there aren’t some questionable decisions here** (everything with the Iron Giant, though cool, kind of flies in the face of that film’s message), but it would be unfair not to admit that if we lived in the OASIS, it’d be hard to resist making some of these mashups ourselves. What might feel to cynical viewers like an avalanche of hat-on-a-hat references is not that dissimilar to an afternoon spent on a Reddit board or on Twitter, where we already try to out-do each other with quotes and memes. It’s been a part of our life since the dawn of the Information Age, and for these characters in the future, it’s their entire lives.
**Also: Considering the not-that-recent allegations, there’s no excuse for T.J. Miller’s bounty hunter I-R0k not being overdubbed by someone else. None.
In any case, Spielberg speeds past most of the call-outs quickly enough for them to remain as window dressing for what’s already a pretty engaging story, even if the film’s biggest question — why aren’t people trying to make the real world better, if “real” is supposed to be better — lingers after the credits. If our heroes manage to win and take down IOI, what fills the vacuum? If the outside world is a lawless dystopia, it’s just a bandaid, a distraction. And if it’s not, if there’s still a government and institutions, you’d think they would have some bearing on events. That’s where the script, adapted by Zak Penn with help from Cline, misses an opportunity to give the quest real meaning. Every single deviation from the book is an improvement, and it’s not like the film needs to be longer, but trying to have it both ways (championing escapism while cautioning against too much escapism) muddies the waters.
Narrative shortcuts aside, the truth is that there’s a lot to enjoy about Ready Player One, and for those willing to trust themselves to Spielberg’s expert hands, you should go forth and have a good time. The cast is appealing (again, especially Rylance, Waithe, and Cooke, with fun turns from Simon Pegg and new faces like Win Morisaki and Philip Zhao), the visuals are eye-popping, and it’s a rollicking ride that reminds us of why we’re fans of stuff like this to begin with. Whether you liked, loathed, or avoided the book, this is very much its own thing, and a better thing. Going to see the film won’t automatically reclaim “fandom” as a positive concept, but shows why we should try.