Ready Player One Review: It's Fun, but not Great, and that Breaks my Heart

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I've been looking forward to Ernie Cline's novel, Ready Player One being turned into a film ever since first reading it a few months after it's release in August of 2011. Then word finally emerged a few years ago that Stephen Spielberg had picked up the project and it added to the excitement. Now opening weekend has finally gotten here, and it's with very mixed emotions that I have to say that the script, adapted by Zak Penn, is so hopelessly watered down that anyone not familiar with the book will look at the longtime fans with bewilderment about why all the fuss.

The film follows the attempts by Wade, played by Tye Sheridan, to work his way through a virtual reality world called the Oasis on a hunt for an easter egg left by it's original creator, Halliday (played by Mark Rylance). The first to solve a series of clues and challenges will win a vast fortune, and total control over Gregarious Simulations, the company which owns and runs the Oasis. Along with Wade, is bff Helen (called Aech, which is pronounced at the letter 'H' online), romantic interest Samantha (whose avatar is called Ar3mis, pronounced Artemis, played by Olivia Cooke), and would-be samurai brothers Daito and Sho (played by Win Morisaki and Phillip Zhao, respectively).  As a foil to their efforts is an evil megacorp, Innovative Online Industries, who wants to monetize the Oasis even further and take over. To that end they've gathered a vast army of employees all armed to the teeth all hunting for the egg on behalf of IOI.

So it's most like Willy Wonka – if the Oompa Loompas were trying to win control of the company for themselves. Most of the film's two and a half-hour running time takes place within the Oasis itself. A beautifully rendered mash-up the likes of which has never been seen on screen before (by comparison, the Lego Movie barely scratched the surface). As we've seen in the trailers, you can go mountain climbing with Batman, be in a race in the DeLorian from Back to the Future (complete with a flux capacitor) alongside the cars from Speed Racer, the A-Team, Mad Max, and the motorcycle from Akira, and see Iron Giant back in action in the midst of the largest firefight ever seen on screen (that includes the Battle of the Pelennor Fields).

On the plus side, there's some amazing visuals alongside some truly great nostalgic callbacks to classic genre films. Some people in the audience will be laughing while others are wondering what film references they're missing. For some that will likely prove frustrating, however the film (and the book has a very specific audience). There has already been a great deal of writing done on if targeting a specific point in time is a good thing or not (I would argue it is, otherwise what's the point of any detailed period piece), but that's not where my frustrations with the film stem from.

My complaint is that the whole film suffers from having been nurfed beyond caring. I have no problem with films editing books, in removing characters and merging others. Films only have so much time to work after all – and not a lot of films can have the same running time as Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet or Das Boot. But here it's as of Zack doesn't even understand character's motivations or the point of the story. Brothers Daito and Sho – in the book the younger of the two is named Shoto, so the two of them together are the names of the two swords carried by a samurai. When Shoto becomes Sho, his name becomes pointless, and their framing as a bonded pair is simply eliminated for no purpose.

Sure, Spielberg has all but insisted that he would never put child characters in danger or kill them; he's the same director/producer who famously nuked the fridge in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull and later insisted he was proud of it becoming a joke. He took a beloved hero in Indiana Jones and took who was a fun adventure hero and made him a laughing stock. Here he doesn't make anyone a joke, but he does cast any care of the story aside and watered it down to a safe, vanilla, experience.

That's the problem – the film could have been a great genre film. It's not great; it's ok, and depending on the viewer it might be good. But most of its real charm is in the visuals and recreations of elements from other films. There'll never be a debate of "is Ready Player One a better film than Blade Runner?" It's just not that kind of experience, unfortunately. However there will be so many discussions around "what film is that from, I want to see that!" And anything that brings awareness of older classics to modern audiences is a good thing.

I've complained a lot about it, but it's from a deep and unapologetic love of the book and the film's lack of use of the material. However seeing it is fun, there's no debate about that.

Hopefully within another 5-10 years we might get a limited series on Netflix or Amazon and they'll really be able to do a comprehensive adaptation.

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About Bill Watters

Games programmer by day, geek culture and fandom writer by night. You'll find me writing most often about tv and movies with a healthy side dose of the goings-on around the convention and fandom scene.
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