Everyone has a memory of a film, television show, video game, or song that brings them an intense rush of emotions. As pop culture enthusiasts, these memories are more frequent and more intense. These nostalgic feelings are the foundation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One which has been adaptated for the big screen by Steven Spielberg.
The novel is a love letter to the youth of Cline and all of the entertainment he enjoyed growing up in the 1980’s. Spielberg, aside from being the creator of a fair amount of 1980’s entertainment, is an older man with a youthful soul, making him a logical choice for this film. The big question was if it were possible for any director to make this novel make sense in cinematic form without changing too much.
The story revolves around a teenager named Wade Watts living the not too distant future of 2045. The world has evolved into a bleak and depressing place where reality isn’t enough to keep everyday people happy anymore. A brilliant game developer named James Halliday creates a virtual reality universe known as the OASIS where people can live their dream life of action and adventure without ever leaving their home. When Halliday passes away, he leaves a massive challenge for the players. There are three keys he has hidden throughout the game and if all three are found the player will be given an “Easter Egg” with unknown power. This challenge is just another everyday failure for Wade, until one day he finds a clue that catapults him into a much larger and more dangerous life than he ever expected.
If you were expecting to walk into this film and see a shot-for-shot film version of the novel, you’re not going to be pleased for the most part. If you haven’t read the novel, you’ll probably enjoy this film for how visually entertaining it is. This is where the dilemma for Spielberg came into play. Cline wrote Ready Player One about a future he imagined that was as fascinated with his past as he was. Spielberg is a master of adventure and wonder in his filmmaking, but with material that he has control over. The novel is very specific with its references to 1980’s films and video games, references that a fair amount of audience members today would have to look up after the film to understand. No matter who made this film it would need to be changed to fit the new generation of gamers and film buffs.
There is a fine line between changing a story to advance certain plot points and changing a story by adding random and unnecessary aspects to it. There are three challenges that the characters must face in order obtain their keys and find Halliday’s Easter Egg. In the novel, these challenges are thoughtful and aimed at specific video games and films that Halliday loved. In the film, the challenges are mostly visual and focus more on who Halliday was as a man and what his personal life really was. The thought-provoking and wordy challenges in the novel don’t translate well onto the big screen, but a massive race with less verbal clues and more visual clues is way more practical in a film of this nature.
That doesn’t make one aspect of the film any less confusing in its translation. Both the novel and film the villain is Nolan Sorrento, the head of the evil tech company IOI. For some unknown reason, the decision was made to give the film an extra villain with a “humorous” edge in the form of I-R0k. This character had about two acknowledgments in the novel and has a large chunk of the film involving him. This story doesn’t need a “funny” secondary villain and it took away from whatever suspense and sense of danger there was.
Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke and Lena Waithe were all excellent choices for the roles of Wade, Art3mis and Aech. Ben Mendelsohn as Sorrento was kind of a good choice, but mainly because Mendelsohn will probably be type casted as “that asshole” forever after Rouge One and this film. I guess you could say Mark Rylance made the character of Halliday more vulnerable and “nerdy” which made him relatable, but I wasn’t a fan of that choice. And I think we can all agree TJ Miller’s presence in this film made no real impact and his character was unnecessary.
Trying to rate Ready Player One solely on how close it was to the novel isn’t fair. Just like every other beloved novel that eventually gets a film adaptation, there will always be differences and changes. Novels are written to create an image in your mind while films are made to give you the picture and do the heavy lifting for you. From a film perspective, this film was flawed and not one of Spielberg’s greatest. The story was long and felt clustered in certain areas. Visually it was up to par with what audiences expect from a Spielberg action adventure film. At its core, Ready Player One does embody the emotional and nostalgic side of Spielberg and celebrated pop culture like only someone who was creating it at the time could have.