Anyone that’s been a reader of this blog for a while will know that when I reviewed the novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline I wasn’t exactly a fan. For the most part, I found it to be an uninspiring and boring story supplemented by an endless and unnecessary stream of pop culture references. It annoyed me that Cline had the audacity to write a novel set in the future and only reference the past. I mean the novel is set sometime in the 2040s which is 60 years after the 1980s. Are we supposed to believe that in 60 years nothing has ever come along to seem cooler than fucking War Games? Now don’t get me wrong, I think War Games is iconic but I was born 5 years after it was released not 50. Anyway, I don’t need to get into this now. Suffice it to say, when it was announced that the book was being turned into a film directed by Steven Spielberg I was hardly on the edge of my fucking seat. I couldn’t see how it would be any good based on the novel or on Spielberg’s recent track record. I mean I enjoyed The BFG and Bridge of Spies is meant to be great but, come one, The Post was hardly anything to celebrate. Spielberg has been a bit of a hack for years. I didn’t see how a huge CGI fest was going to get him out of his funk. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t curious so, this weekend, I decided it was time to find out for sure.
Ready Player One takes us into the year 2045 and a dystopian future for mankind. We’re really briefly introduced to a world where everything is so shit that people escape to a virtual world called The OASIS. To escape their problems, people from every part of society can plug themselves in and create a digital life that is only limited by their imagination. You can be anyone you want and do anything you can think of. The hero of our story is an orphan who, in the real world, lives in the slums with his aunt and her violent boyfriend. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is obsessed with the OASIS and has created a blissful existence within it. He has nothing on the outside but has made friends and found a place for himself online. Wade is mostly preoccupied with a mysterious contest that the creator of the virtual reality playground, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), announced just after his death. Halliday placed a hidden Easter Egg into his game that is hidden behind a door. To open the door a player must first find 3 keys that they can only get to by completing a series of quests. These quests are all linked to Halliday’s past and his love of 1980s pop culture. The really serious egg hunters (or “gunters”) obsessively study Halliday at his archives. It is here that the information needed to solve the clues can be found.
After a long time trying, Wade eventually figures out the way to beat the first quest and he finds himself on top of the leaderboard. He is suddenly rocketed to fame and fortune but with this recognition comes danger. The innocent gunter quickly becomes a target of the IOI, an evil video game conglomerate that is keen to win the contest at any cost. They are led by ruthless CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who has hired an army of hunters and a support team of geeks to provide all of the answers to Halliday’s riddles. Thankfully, Wade has the help of a small group of gamers who also find their way to the first key. Known as the High-Five, it is comprised of Wade’s best friend in the OASIS Aech, his virtual crush Art3mis, and two unknowns, Zhou and Toshiro. They all chose to work together to ensure that IOI doesn’t get their hands on the egg. Because that would be bad.
Ready Player One is essentially just a really bad copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but with VR instead of chocolate. Unlike the Roald Dahl story, it doesn’t really have a lot to offer. The story isn’t exactly thrilling and there is no real character development. The closest it gets is the pathetic and totally rushed romance between Wade and Art3mis. It’s hardly the stuff of legends: they meet in real life and about 3 seconds later he’s telling her he loves her. It’s insane. The story and characters matter so little to the making of this film that it’s basically forgotten about. Some moments don’t make sense and plenty of characters who definitely don’t need to be there. Some key moments are glossed over and plenty that deserve more careful handling than they get.
Unfortunately, all of this is ignored in favour of name-dropping as many examples of popular culture as possible. Just like the book, the film is littered with visual and vocal references to films, songs, video games, books, and television shows of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. Now, before I got off on a rant, I should say that there were some great visual moments in this film. There are some brief scenes where the CGI heavy action comes to life and they’re an absolute joy to watch. It’s a treat for anyone to just be able to spot something they loved. BUT, in the long run, this film hopes it can create enough excitement from people recognising obscure shit that they don’t notice its lack of substance. It replaces decent storytelling or film-making for nostalgia. And it’s something people keep falling for. There is so much shoved in our faces that it’s a complete clusterfuck. It’s kind of embarrassing. In the opening scene alone there are enough mentions of popular characters and films that I just felt bad for whoever wrote it.
Now I love a good pop culture reference but not when there is nothing behind it. There is so much going on in front of our eyes but so little going on underneath. The story has, understandably, been simplified from the novel. That’s either for time or due to licensing I guess. However, everything is so underdeveloped. My issue with the novel was that we didn’t really know anything about the society that Wade and co. lived in. I didn’t think it was possible but we know even less in the film. Very little is explained simply. When I read the novel I suspected that Cline was simply too bad a writer to be able to come up with a detailed world. I guess he had a bigger hand in writing the film that I’d initially thought because the world we see in front of us doesn’t seem very rounded at all. I never got any real sense of why anyone continued to give a shit about Halliday or the Easter Egg hunt for so long. If I hadn’t read the book I doubt I’d have really understood what was motivating the IOI. Nobody seemed to have any real motivation for anything they were doing.
That’s his MO. This film is over 2 hours long, but the actual basic story could be told in about 45 minutes. And I suspect I’m being generous. If you were to take away the references, there wouldn’t be a film here. It’s nothing. It’s just someone in a room saying, “look at all these things I like that you like too”. It’s no wonder Simon fucking Pegg is in it. The reason it is so bloated is because it indulges Cline’s ridiculous need to describe everything in minute detail. If we can only be shown a classic video game after having a character explain the history of that particular game then maybe, you know, don’t? It’s all just trivia and history. I don’t watch films set in the future to have a history lesson. I want to see the fucking future. When will YA writers and makers of teen film realise that it’s time we stop relying on the 80s to get people interested. Just write some decent content for a change.