This review contains spoilers to both the book and the film of Ready Player One. However, it really is the most by-the-numbers, predictable stuff and the film removes everything interesting anyway.
Ready Player One is a failure in every single endeavour. As a film at the most basic level, it is confused and lifeless. As a celebration of pop culture references, it insultingly misses the point. As an adaptation of a novel, it manages to surgically remove and destroy the few redeeming qualities of the original book. As an exploration of the themes and concepts it engages with, it is at best irredeemably misguided and at worst immensely, problematically toxic.
Like Adam Sandler talent vacuum Pixels or the ongoing public castration of the concept of comedy that is The Big Bang Theory, Ready Player One is the sort of thing people seem to assume I like. In reality, I hated this film and everything it represents. It is such an offensive, distasteful mess that calling it a terrible, boring film is the nicest thing I can say.
It opens with a long monologue from lead character Wade, or Parcival, which sets the tone for the whole film; more of the runtime is spent on voiceovers, exposition and explanations than actual characterisation or interaction for the paper-thin cast. The plot concerns a future where people spend their days in a VR simulation called the OASIS, and a group of characters searching this virtual world for “Easter Eggs” hidden by a legendary game creator.
This plot, which is largely the same as the book’s, is little more than an excuse for a series of effects-heavy setpieces full of impossible to follow action and smattered with heartless pop culture references and cameos. While the relentless onslaught of battles, races and fights are full of visual spectacle, a lack of attachment to the characters and sense of stakes mean they utterly fail to engage.
The key selling point of the film and the original book is, of course, the constant stream of 80s pop culture icons. As in the books, these are handled with all the intelligence and sensitivity of one of those knock-off Chinese action figure sets which contain two colours of Power Ranger, Batman and Shrek under the title of “Justice Avenging Hero Team”.
In most cases, the pop culture references are cynical cameos which simply fail to capture the original appeals of the various properties. Seeing a platoon of Halo’s Spartans raises a slight smirk, though not nearly enough amusement to sustain the film’s runtime, nor anything approaching the actual artistic value of the various better works of art being referenced.
More egregious are the examples of characters and designs being so divorced from their original context they become offensive to the original vision. Prominently featured on the marketing materials and in the film’s final act are The Iron Giant and an RX-78-2 Gundam. Both of these are famous giant robots from beloved works of fiction explicitly about the horror and futility of war. The Iron Giant in particular is deeply revered as a childlike story of a deadly machine overcoming its destructive nature in the name of peace.
Here, both are reduced to weapons. The designs are used because they look good and have cultural appeal, flung onto screen to shoot guns and kill baddies. The closing shot of the Iron Giant references another great robot movie, and my own personal favourite film: Terminator 2. Whereas the thumbs up from a robot slowly descending into molten lava in that film represented the artificial intelligence finally understanding and appreciating the value of human life, here it is a literal thumbs up to the idea of carrying on and perpetuating further violence.
A great many of these complaints could be levelled at the book as well. Both novel and film trade in borrowed affection, wallowing in the past and celebrating a backwards-facing mindset. The book did have a small number of redeeming features, however.
I don’t think obsessing over old characters and stories at the expense of new creation is a good starting point, but in the case of the book it at least felt like it was done out of love. It was obvious throughout that the characters interacted with and obsessed with the games and films the writer had enjoyed.
Here, the references are funnelled through the corporate machine. Characters and references whose rights could be acquired are shoehorned in, and the films and games the lawyers couldn’t grab hold of are tossed aside.
In the book, classic arcade games are played in tense, exciting bouts. Here, these encounters are replaced by big-budget action scenes. Documentaries like The King of Kong, not to mention the online esports scene, have proven that watching skilled players battle it out at classic games can be engaging entertainment. Are we really to believe that Steven Spielberg couldn’t direct a tense game of Joust? But no, the studio doesn’t think that would sell.
Instead, the opening challenge is a big, exciting race through Manhattan. The real problem here is that it completely undermines the opening act of the story and the characterisation of the protagonist.
In the book, the first of the three keys is hidden on the basic planet which Wade accesses for his school education. The whole point was that it was accessible to everyone. Wade is a poor kid, but he can visit that planet for free. In the film, the story opens and he already has a cool Delorean.
One of the book’s genuine appeals was its anticapitalist bent. It’s hardly surprising that this didn’t survive the translation to a big budget film with a budget in the hundreds of millions.
In the film, even the good guys start from a position of privilege. The bad guys are one specific big business. The villainous henchmen are portrayed as a private police force, which is too close to being an actual statement so the film makes sure to show us the real police at the end, arresting all the baddies. The dark undercurrent about debt collection, indentured servitude and corporations controlling the world is brushed aside all too quickly.
The worst changes the film makes are to the character of Artemis. The book didn’t exactly handle her fantastically: by the end of the story, the hero “won” her and we were all supposed to be amazed at his selflessness in accepting a gorgeous woman far beyond his league even though she had a bit of a birthmark. What a romantic hero.
All of that is kept in, and even brought forward to much earlier in the story. On the other hand, the elements of the character which made her a little more rounded are stripped away. In the book, she’s Wade’s rival, initially far his superior and never less than his equal. At the start, he idolises her for being far ahead of him in their quest, and she continues to be competent and effective throughout the story.
In the film, our male hero rescues her right at the start of the film, and they interact regularly from this point on as equal teammates. In the latter half of the film, in a huge diversion from the book, she inexplicably sacrifices herself for him just so he can rescue her again from even greater peril. The only prominent female role in the story is reduced to damsel in distress, stripped of dignity and awarded to the hero as just another trinket for winning the game.
This wantonly ignorant misogyny is emblematic of the entire production.
Ready Player One is far from fantastical. A world of enormous economic divide, where the starving masses live through a screen rather than engage with reality, is not a fictional dystopia. We live in that world. Young men, obsessed with videogames, living their entire lives on the internet and valuing minute knowledge of pop culture over any real-world talent or social skills do exist.
They’re not lovable, heroic figures but dangerous, troubled men. Their impotent rage at realising they’ve wasted their lives, and that the things they thought made them special are also enjoyed by people of all creeds and genders, can be weaponised. It’s been used to harass and bully women in just about every online “geek culture” space for years. It put white nationalists in the white house, and the very real and deliberate identification and manipulation of these kinds of young men is widely documented.
I love Nintendo games, comicbooks, science fiction and fantasy. Online and in person, I’ve spent most of my life associating with the “Parcivals” and “Anoraks” of the real world. Sequences of characters judging one another on useless factoids or degrees of obsessions are all-too familiar, and always a red flag to some dangerously skewed priorities.
In 2009, when the book came out, telling a story that celebrates this kind of insular behaviour was misguided and pathetic. In 2018, a motion picture like this is wilfully, dangerously ignorant. There's even a scene where an Asian businessman loses his in-game character, into which he has poured real-world time and money, and attempts to commit suicide. Is the starting point for the film to make brave statements about the predatory, gambling-like practices of the videogame industry? Of course not. It's played for laughs and then ignored. This story touches on elements of very real issues, yet just like all the fictional properties it trades in, it cynically uses them to tell a tired, clichéd story and then tosses them aside.
Ready Player One is the Brexit of cinema: an exercise in old white men misremembering a glorious past, throwing money down the drain and having nothing to show for it. Worst of all, it removes the plot point from the book where the main character achieved peak performance by shaving his head.