Let’s get this out of the way up front: I haven’t read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Despite this, I was still looking forward to the movie adaptation for a number of reasons. First, a (kind-of) videogame movie that might actually work. Second, Steven Spielberg riffing off the nostalgic of ’80s pop culture, which he influenced and defined. Third, the praise that’s heaped on the book by people who’s tastes tend to align with mine.
Still, Ready Player One is a rather confused movie. Granted, it’s copping some unnecessary flak. People saying it’s a terrible movie confuse me, because even though I can agree it’s a flawed experience, it’s far from irredeemable. For instance, if you’ve ever seen a Spielberg action movie—Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Minority Report—then you know he’s a master of action set pieces. Hell, if you’ve seen The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, you should know what to expect from Ready Player One in terms of its action sequences.
Practical effects are great and all, mostly because those three IRL action movies I first mentioned still hold up today because of an emphasis on real effects. But given the vivid imagination of Spielberg, the option to quite literally create a set piece without restriction thanks to the freedom of a fully computer-animated sequence and, well, you get incredibly inventive stuff. So, aside from being a Tintin fan, the highlight of Spielberg’s take on the comic series is the execution of the action sequences.
Ready Player One is no different. If the only reason you see Ready Player One is for the action sequences, I’d wager you’ll still be entertained. If you’re an old-school gamer like me and also want to see it for the array of references to game content (characters, concepts, worlds, even actual games), there’s an extra layer of enjoyment.
But that’s also where Ready Player One hits one of its biggest hurdles. In fairness, the biggest problems I have with Ready Player One are its leads. Tye Sheridan, for me, is the Orlando Bloom of leads: he’s a decent enough actor, he plays a great supporting role, but he’s not really protagonist material. Quick tangent: the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven is a marked improvement on the theatrical version, but I swear it would’ve been an even better movie if someone other than Bloom was in the lead (like Colin Farrell).
Back on topic, it doesn’t help that the arc of Sheridan’s character (Wade/Parzival) involves an on-the-nose and oftentimes cringe-worthy love story with Olivia Cooke’s character (Samantha/Art3mis). There’s one particular scene in a club, which is ultimately dedicated to fleshing out this love story in a way that has more cheese than a fondue party. At best, the love story is tacky; at worst, it’s The Big Bang Theory’s understanding of geek interaction and intimacy (laughing at geekdom, not with it).
As a gamer, though, while the visual references are on point, the dialogue leaves a lot to desire. It’s an odd thing to realise, particularly given Spielberg’s interest in games (he’s listed as the creator of Medal of Honor and there was even a Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair game) alongside the screenwriter Zak Penn’s apparent interest, too (he directed the Atari: Game Over documentary).
The worst line in the movie is gaming related: “A fanboy knows a hater.” The fact that the hero delivers this line to the villain makes it all the more confusing. In gaming circles, “fanboy” tends to have negative connotations. While Sheridan does the best he can with delivering this line, it’s the kind of dialogue snippet that makes it seem like the script wasn’t read by, edited by, or had notes given from someone who’s up to date with gaming vernacular.
To put that into context, when someone asked me what I thought of the movie and I quoted that line to them, their comment was “It’s like calling someone a noob”, which is also a term used in the movie. At least with noob, I get why it’s there: it’s the kind of Big Bang Theory touchpoint that the non-gamer crowd can likely associate with gaming, without really understanding how its used. Then there are titbit problems in the references, like a particular weapon from Worms that’s used without the iconic sound.
(Slight parenthetical spoilers ahead; skip to the next paragraph to avoid ’em. In fairness, that could be because it’s more a Monty Python reference than a Worms one, but it’s used in the game part of the world, and Monty Python is from the ’70s in a movie that’s supposed to be celebrating ’80s pop culture. Also, while we’re on the topic of spoilers, the creator of the virtual world in Ready Player One is apparently a scrub because his favourite GoldenEye 007 multiplayer character was Oddjob. I bet he was also the kind of player who threw proximity mines at the fixed spawn points, too, to score cheap frags.)
The bigger problem related to these kind of references is it begs the question: who’s the movie for? On one hand, there’s a peppering of ’80s music, TV and movie references, but gaming is definitely the dominant influence. The mix of modern-day gaming and old-school gaming—combined with unfortunate inclusions like Battleborn [http://steamcharts.com/app/394230] references (should’ve stuck exclusively with Overwatch on that front, licensing team)—means the creators are casting a wide net for gaming preferences. But the fact that the nods that aren’t just visual are overexplained makes it feel like it’s more intended for fans of those other forms of ’80s pop culture.
The trick with that is, outside of one truly amazing sequence in the middle (which I won’t spoil), you’re left with very few meaningful cinematic nods outside of John Hughes and the (admittedly awesome but scarce) Robert Zemeckis moments.
(More parenthetical spoilers; skip to the next para if you want to avoid. Even the glimpses of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are ruined by the fact it’s their modern CG design, instead of either a cartoon or actors-in-rubber-suits approach.)
This means Ready Player One becomes, again, a movie that’s meant more for gamers than non-gamers, but the overreliance on exposition (particularly at the start of the movie) taints some of those references. To make matters worse, the full-stop message of the movie is so condescending to gamers it once again ruins what came before. I’ve seen it twice already (unplanned, mind you), and while I relished in the nostalgic-heavy direction the first time, it was easier to be critical of the stacks of little things that detracted from the intended immersion during my second viewing.
Here’s another anecdote to wrap things up. In the lead-up to the movie’s release, I spoke with a group of people who’d all read the book. Some were worried their beloved book would be tarnished. Others were less concerned. One person, though, shared that they’d read a recent interview with Cline in which he admitted to fudging the game references of the book. After reading that interview, this person went back and read the book and found it incredibly easy to find evidence of this.
It feels like a similar story for the movie, where two proficient moviemakers, Spielberg and Penn, understand the non-gaming ’80s pop-culture references, but they’ve phoned-in the gaming parts. Ready Player One is worth seeing on the big screen, but it absolutely could have been better had Penn and Spielberg decided to either go heavier on non-gaming references (despite the dominance of the virtual setting) or enlisted the help of an in-touch gamer for its current preferences.