While still fundamentally flawed, this adaptation benefits greatly from a thorough reengineering
Ready Player One takes place in 2045. A virtual reality platform known as OASIS is the biggest piece of entertainment in the entire world, with most of the population spending a bulk of their time online, living out different lives as avatars. Before dying, the inventor of the OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), announced that he had left an easter egg in the OASIS, and whoever finds it will inherit control of his company and its virtual world. A young player named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) plies his deep knowledge of pop culture and Halliday’s history to search for the egg. But a powerful corporation is using its vast resources to get there first.
The movie isn’t very faithful to the source material, and this is a good thing. The novel just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, its empty listing of pop culture references never amounting to a story worth telling. The film basically takes on the basic structure and its premise, but reengineers all the story beats to create something a little more substantial. It doesn’t completely overcome the overall weaknesses of the novel, but the movie does manage to harness all that fanboy energy into something more creative and affecting.
The movie, like the novel, is best framed as a celebration of fanboy obsession. Its main character, Wade Watts, succeeds largely through his ability to retain arcane knowledge and minute details from the things that he’s seen. And the film’s villain, though ostensibly made evil by his yearning to monetize the OASIS, is really made a foil for his lack of interest in pop culture. And also like the book, the movie never really reckons with the other side of this kind of obsession. It never ventures to examine the emptiness of a culture that lives solely off the past, or the sadness that it implies. It pays lip service to the idea of better living through actual living, but the movie is just as happy to wallow in nostalgia.
Given that, the movie is still able to deliver a workable narrative that serves as a platform for several fun sequences. An early action set piece involves a race far more thrilling and inventive than anything in the novel itself. Later in the film, Spielberg flexes his fanboy muscles with a loving tribute that exhibits something resembling heart. More work in general has been done to make the characters feel more human and nuanced than in the novel. The plot can still feel arbitrary, and the movie as a whole still doesn’t get very deep, but it is easy enough to enjoy on a surface level.
Some of its sequences are less successful, however. The big climactic fight just becomes a mess of CGI. The brief glimpses we see of action out in the real world only serve to make these sequences look silly in comparison. Spielberg, for all of his technical wizardry, is still more able to create magic when there’s something real in the picture. Tye Sheridan is fine in the lead role, but it’s a pretty bland character. Olivia Cooke gets to do some more interesting stuff. Mark Rylance’s turn as a Wozniak-style introverted nerd is the highlight of the film, the affectation turning into some much more human by the end.
Ready Player One almost overcomes the emptiness of its source material. Almost. When all is said and done, there’s still a distinct lack of self-examination, and its overall themes just don’t hold up. But it does manage to wield nostalgia in more meaningful ways. While the novel seemed content with listing out its nerd references, the film seems to try harder to make these references mean something to the character. It’s a slight difference in the end, but it really matters in the long run.
Philbert Ortiz Dy has been reviewing movies professionally since 2007, and has thus dedicated his life to being yelled at by fans of literally everyone. He is currently the Online Editor of Rogue.ph. Yell at him on Twitter at @philbertdy.