On Ready Player One…

I’ll put my cards on the table right at the start – I enjoyed the book of Ready Player One quite a lot.    It’s an entertaining trawl through the nostalgia of the 1980’s combined with a story that carries that nostalgia fairly well, set in a fairly well-formed dystopian future.  For the most part, it works and I found it entertaining.   That isn’t to say that it doesn’t have some flaws to it – the story, once stripped of the nostalgia aspect, is relatively slight, the characters lack much complexity and, with the story related in the first person by the tale’s protagonist, there are some issues in how some supporting characters, particularly Art3mis, the story’s female lead, are portrayed, being viewed primarily through the eyes of a rather naive young man.    On the whole, though, it’s an entertaining enough read and the book has attained considerable success, making it prime fodder for Hollywood.

I had certain concerns from the off about a movie version of Ready Player One.   The story, as presented in the book, isn’t overly cinematic for much of the plot’s run time, with the challenges involving the main character completing lengthy computer games and role-playing his way through entire movies (Wargames and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, to be specific), stuff that seemed unlikely to translate well to the big screen.    There was also a fairly big question about the whole nostalgia thing that drives the novel, namely how much they’d actually be able to get the rights to.   But, with Steven Spielberg settling into the director’s chair, things seemed promising, and, when I got the chance to catch a showing a full ten days before release, it was a no-brainer to go for it.

In Spielberg’s capable hands, Ready Player One is a fun fantastical adventure of the type that Spielberg used to be very much known for, mixing entertaining action with a decent amount of heart, sprinkled with a smattering of moral.   In a story that draws heavily on nostalgia, Spielberg has chosen to conjure up the feelings that imbued much of his own considerable back catalog, giving the movie a somewhat nostalgic sense, even if you don’t get a lot of the many, many references flung at you throughout the movie’s run time.

Speaking of those references, this is going to be one of those movies that does pretty well in the home media market, simply because people are going to want to pause it at regular intervals just to see which pop culture characters have shown up in any given shot.    It may well be the movie that finally tips me over the edge to buying a 4K capable player, just to get that extra resolution to make things out.   Almost any scene set within the OASIS, the gigantic shared network that everybody uses, is full to the brim with detail as myriad characters, mostly drawn from other properties, go about their businesses.   The whole thing looks astonishing, even by today’s standards and the merry disregard for physical laws inherent in a computer generated simulation makes for some spectacular visuals.

The film takes considerable liberties with the story, most of which work very well, particularly for the cinematic format.    The challenges are slimmed down and more action-heavy – the first challenge, for example, is the seemingly unwinnable race seen in most of the trailers.    Some characters are introduced in real life earlier in the tale and some actions taken by the protagonist in the novel are given to other characters, giving them a greater sense of participation within the tale.   The movie wisely ditches the novel’s specific focus on the 1980’s for its nostalgia references, picking and choosing whatever they could get the rights to from pop culture right up to the present day – turns out that, when Spielberg applies his considerable clout, a lot of people are happy to play along.   It’s a sensible move that no doubt improves the overall appeal of the movie to those key demographics who weren’t around during the 80’s, but also gives a wider feel to proceedings (it does also give the odd impression that pop culture pretty much stopped in 2018, despite the story being set in 2045, but you can’t have everything).    The film also feels more personal than the book, with challenges hinging less on an intricate understanding of the pop culture obsessions of deceased OASIS creator James Halliday and more on understanding the man himself and his hopes and regrets.

The cast are generally good in roles that aren’t, to be fair, particularly deep (not, to be equally fair, that that’s overly unusual in big effects films).  Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke have an appealing chemistry as leads Wade “Parzival” Watts and Samantha “Art3mis” Cook with solid work from Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki and Philip Zhao as their fellow players.   Ben Mendelsohn has a slightly thankless task as corrupt executive Nolan Sorrento, bringing up occasional memories of his Rogue One character.   Mendelsohn does do enough to distinguish the characters, but it’s a shame that elements of the character’s backstory as related in the canonical short story Lacero (penned by The Martian‘s Andy Weir) , that could have fleshed him out considerably.   Simon Pegg does his usual good work as OASIS co-creator Ogden Morrow and it’s a bit of a shame that his screen time has been rather reduced by the changes, as more Pegg is rarely a bad thing.  Mark Rylance is a standout as James “Anorak” Halliday, giving what could be a very stereotypical character a vulnerability that works extremely well.

Overall, Ready Player One is a good, fun, entertaining adventure movie with some spectacular visuals, solid performances, a good score (courtesy of veteran composer Alan Silvestri) and more spot-the-reference moments than quite possibly any other movie in history.   One of Steven Spielberg’s specialities has always been the fun adventure movie and he hasn’t let the side down.    It’s unlikely to set the world on fire, but, for an entertaining popcorn film, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered.