Stylish, vivid, and popping with nostalgia
Author Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One was an obvious choice for a film adaptation considering the amount of nostalgia that has crept into everything these days. The trouble with the book, was always going to be how much time the characters spend re-creating scenes from movies, which would have been dull to watch, and likely hard to get the rights to even do. The book also has a fairly weak, mixed up story, so I was dubious what director Steven Spielberg could do with the concept.
Between Spielberg and writer Zak Penn, who wrote the screenplay with Cline, Ready Player One turns a fascinating idea into an even better film, and it hooked me nearly from the start. It’s frankly a better film than it deserved to be.
The trick is that the film does not follow the book to the letter. A lot of scenes and elements from the book are tossed in favour of simpler, and better, storytelling. In the book, for instance, our hero, Wade Watts–played by Tye Sheridan in the film–is in school. That whole sub-plot is dropped, which gets the story moving much more quickly. All of the moments where Wade just survives because he memorized something are thankfully nuked from the story.
Ready Player One, as a film, helps turn Wade into a real hero, rather than just a massive nerd. He is still obsessed with the pop-culture that shaped the book, but he’s more of a well-rounded real-ish human being too.
Ready Player One starts with a quick dip into the Oasis, a virtual reality world in the year 2045 where everyone escapes to play, meet, and interact. The real world has gone to hell, turning into a dingy, corporate-driven mess, with the average citizen suffering, and the Oasis is the refuge where people go to spend their time and money. Created by James Halliday, played here by the great Mark Rylance, the worlds of the Oasis have changed over the years as many of the users hunt for a great prize–an Easter egg hidden by its now late creator.
Before Halliday died, he hid clues for the world to discover, which would lead to three keys that opened a prize that included control of the Oasis, and a pile of money. Now, the world is full of Gunters–egg hunters–looking for the answers, and Wade is an an expert on all things Halliday.
When Wade uncovers a major clue to unraveling the first part of the contest, and then wins himself and his friends the first key, the race is on to beat all of the other people who have been fighting to win the prize. Among all the Gunters though, there is one major rival: Nolan Sorrento, the CEO of Innovative Online Industries, better known as IOI, and he will stop at nothing to make sure his company takes over the Oasis. Sorrento wants to control the virtual world so they can charge extra fees, cover it with ads, and do no good.
That is almost entirely the plot of the film, aside from some wonderful tidbits with Halliday, but it’s what Spielberg does with the characters, and the whole adventure, that sets Ready Player One apart from other films like this.
The visuals, first off, are very good–better than they looked in the trailers, thankfully. The film sets a very specific tone for the look of the real world, and the Oasis, and while the trailer made the Oasis look rubbery, it turned out much better on screen. It looks somewhat like a very impressive video game, and that’s perfect for the story, but on top of that, the virtual characters–Wade’s avatar, Parzival, for instance–have flourishes that reveal the character playing the avatar.
Olivia Cooke as Samantha Cook, and her avatar of Art3mis, is really a scene-stealer. Sheridan is a great Wade, and he’s emotive and just nerdy enough, but Cooke has compelling texture that elevates her story, which is frankly a nice change from the Wade-centric novel.
Mendelsohn as Nolan Sorrento is the perfect villain for this story, playing the part of a man who seems to want to be part of the Oasis, but has no idea how to belong to it without just trying to sour it with corporate greed.
Rounding out the cast is Lena Waithe, who deserved more screen time if you ask me; T.J. Miller as the bad guy comic relief, i-R0k; Simon Pegg as a potentially under-used Ogden Morrow; Philip Zhao as Sho; Win Morisaki as Daito; and the Killjoy herself, Hannah John-Kamen as F’Nale Zandor.
The down side of the changes that Spielberg and Penn made to the story is that a lot of side characters lose out on screen time. Most of the other characters are reduced to a few key scenes, and while I would have liked to have seen more of the group camaraderie that was in the novel, the running time on Ready Player One is stretched a bit far. The early scenes in the film provide some great starting points for getting into the world without feeling rushed into the quest, but cutting a few minutes there would have helped make the film a little more watchable, or at least made time for more character moments.
If it were possible, I think Ready Player One could have made a fantastic mini-series on TV, but that would have been unlikely and this self-contained story boils down to a great adventure. The film reminds me a lot of a classic like The Goonies, joining a short list of great films that immerses you in a fulfilling adventure, and the payoff is fantastic. I laughed more than I expected, and even when I knew where things were headed, I enjoyed nearly every minute of this film.
I would even welcome a sequel, if it could find new ground to mine that offered as much adventure.
Ready Player One offers simple, effective storytelling that feels like a classic, and while it could have had more depth, particularly with Halliday’s story and Wade’s personality, I could have watched the movie a couple of times just to enjoy all the references and details.
Director of photography Janusz Kaminski, one of Spielberg’s greatest collaborators, creates some dizzying, expansive scenes, and composer Alan Silvestri, crafted a compelling score that suits the video-game meets epic-movie franchise mood.
If you want excellent escapist fare, this is Spielberg at his best, with action you can actually follow, and a quest that feels quest-worthy. Considering the short list of actually great quest films over the years, Ready Player One ranks pretty high in my books, and if you don’t get bogged down on how the film is different from the book, you’ll love the results.