Late last year, I surmised that Ready Player One might be the most difficult project of Steven Spielberg’s career—not because the director wasn’t capable of crafting high-flying popcorn extravaganzas, but because his source material, Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, was subpar. Okay, I went a bit further than that, calling it “a terribly written piece of adolescent fantasy that, at heart, exemplifies everything wrong and repellent about modern nerd culture.”
I stand by that assessment of both the book and the task laid before Spielberg. And having now seen the film, I can say that—with all due respect to my esteemed editor—the illustrious director has failed to meet that challenge, scarcely improving upon the many fundamental shortcomings of Cline’s work.
To be sure, Spielberg remains a master of staging coherent and thrilling action set pieces, and his empathy for underdog outsiders is as strong and genuine as always. Yet despite removing some of his story’s most off-putting elements, his adaptation stands as a one-note celebration of pop-culture nostalgia, concerned only with commending its audience for their love of Batman, Child’s Play, The Iron Giant and countless other cartoons, video games and movies. It’s all blind, superficial adoration devoid of the very sort of adult perspective it so desperately requires.
In terms of fidelity, Ready Player One—written by Zak Penn and Cline himself—hews to the book’s narrative spine while reconfiguring most of its specifics. As before, teen Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) escapes his dreary 2045 life in Columbus, Ohio’s slummy “stacks” by venturing into the VR universe of the Oasis, a simulation created by mastermind James Halliday (Mark Rylance) where geeks can indulge in endless geekery. Watts doesn’t visit the Oasis just to goof around, though; like the rest of Earth’s population, he’s there to search for three keys that will unlock a secret “Easter egg” hidden by Halliday. Find the egg, and one gains control of the Oasis itself—a prize that Wade hunts for (as his avatar Parzival) with his friends Aech (Lena Waithe) and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), and which is also coveted by evil corporation IOI and its chief baddie, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).
[Beware! Spoilers Ahead!]
While that plot framework comes straight from Cline’s bestseller, Spielberg takes enormous liberties with the details of Wade’s quest.
In the big-screen Ready Player One, the mysteries Wade must unlock have far less to do with pre-console PC games and Dungeons & Dragons RPGs than with understanding Halliday’s personal life—a welcome change that’s made even better by the fact that it does away with Cline’s conception of fandom as an undertaking predicated on rote memorization of song lyrics and lines of dialogue. There, is, quite simply, more effusiveness to Spielberg’s portrait of pop-culture fanaticism. That said, such enthusiasm often feels hopelessly scattershot, as the film’s decision to do away with the book’s 1980s fetishism—here, shout-outs abound to properties from the 1970s to the present—makes its nerdgasmic cameos feel haphazard and untethered to any larger principle.
In place of Joust competitions and first-person walkthroughs of WarGames, Spielberg delivers a spasmodic car chase featuring Back to the Future’s DeLorean, a T. Rex and King Kong, and a virtual-reality jaunt through The Shining—the latter a misguided sequence which relegates Kubrick’s classic to a haunted-house ride, and no doubt has the auteur spinning furiously in his grave. Those are merely a few of the innumerable references littered throughout Ready Player One, and while the film doesn’t trot them out with the same smarty-pants smugness of the book, it nonetheless pats viewers on the back for recognizing them as they whiz across the screen. In the process, it reduces large swaths of Wade’s adventure to a game of spot-the-famous-face—Freddy Krueger! Hello Kitty! Beetlejuice!—that seems tailor-made for repeat home-media viewings, when fans can freeze each frame to figure out who’s hidden among the CGI throngs (like Boba Fett and He-Man—SQUEE!).
By turning Art3mis and Aech into only moderate pop-culture aficionados (the latter hasn’t even seen The Shining, bafflingly), Ready Player One does mitigate some of Cline’s allusion-overload showoffery. However, those reconfigured characterizations make little sense given that both figures are supposedly top competitors for Halliday’s Easter egg—and thus should know far more about the late genius’ obsessions than they do. That’s most egregiously felt during an early scene that finds Wade mansplaining basic Halliday history to the supposedly formidable Art3mis. And it’s in keeping with the film’s overarching failure to convey the global nature of this hunt—as well as its difficulty, since the clues Wade and company unravel are of a rudimentary sort when compared with those found in Cline’s esoteric-laden tome.
Likewise, Sheridan’s Wade is stripped of his defining self-satisfied geekdom to the point of being a cardboard-cutout hero. A tad more color comes courtesy of Mendelsohn’s scenery-chewing Sorrento and Rylance’s weirdo Halliday (the less said about Waithe, Cooke, and T.J. Miller’s i-R0k, a bounty hunter with a skull for a body who’s unique to Spielberg’s film, the better). Yet there’s so much zipping around cluttered digital landscapes at warp speed that there’s no chance for anything human to truly emerge. For an artist who’s long since moved on to more complex terrain (see: Lincoln, Bridge of Spies and The Post), Ready Player One plays like a misguided detour back into juvenilia. To a greater extent than with Cline’s book, it’s a kiddie saga in which everyone is more concerned with saving their fantasyland—and the adolescent minutia they unhealthily cling to—than their real world, which at story’s end remains ravaged by environmental and economic ruin (but hey, Wade learns to make out with girls!).
That, ultimately, is what’s most frustrating about Ready Player One: on top of having no feel for why people adore their beloved movies and games, it has no interest in casting a critical eye toward all-consuming fandom, and the stunted adolescence it can perpetuate. Like Hook, it’s a simplistic paean to rediscovering the wonders of childhood, a reverie in which rejecting maturity is the key to being the coolest, most desirable, and most popular person on the planet—and, as such, a love letter to dorks who continue to believe that properly identifying Robocop and John Hughes citations is the end all, be all to life.
Spielberg may have removed those unfortunate Cline passages of virginal Wade praising the greatness of masturbation, but his film is still little more than an act of fanboy pandering.