Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Ernest Cline/Zak Penn
(Seriously. I couldn’t choose a poster. So you get a few of ’em.)
Back in 2011, a book was released by an unknown writer from Austin named Ernest Cline. Upon its release, it garnered praise from Entertainment Weekly, NPR, AV Club, Huffington Post and dozens of other publications. It shot to the top of the New York Times Bestsellers List, becoming one of the biggest geek books ever.
It also got its share of backlash. The lead character, Wade Watts (aka Parzival), was a “nice guy” who didn’t know how to take no for an answer. He was a “gatekeeper,” asking his love interest, Artemis, a bunch of questions to make sure that she was as knowledgable of 80s culture as he was. Art3mis seemed to be a prize for him to win, along with the Easter Egg. She was a “Mary Sue,” only there to prop up Wade’s adventures.
I missed a lot of this when I read the book a year or two later. Ok. I missed ALL of it. I fell in love almost immediately. I know that almost every geek book is written basically for me, being a straight, white dude. I absolutely get that. But this felt like the first one (that I had read, anyway) that spoke DIRECTLY to me, the kid who had no luck with women, was obsessed with a time that he wasn’t involved in (for me, it was the 60s), and basically spoke a different language to everyone around him. (Try quoting Laugh-In to a bunch of teenagers in 1989. Or (just to show that I wasn’t COMPLETELY backdated) discuss the intricacies of a Genesis video. I was told “NO! No one knows this because no one’s that weird!”) Basically, I was Wade Watts. I just wan’t into RPGs.
The book is problematic as fuck. So is Ernie, even though he has a kickass car. (That poem. Oh, god, that poem.) But I had a lot of fun with it.
Fast forward a few years and the only person who could possibly make an adventure movie about a kid who’s obsessed with the 80s makes a movie of Ready Player One. Will he fix the problematic bullshit? Will he be able to make a movie out of this that people who found the book insufferable will like?
Read on, my Audience Of One.
Let’s start with the actual story: Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is an orphan living with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend in 2045 Columbus, Ohio. The population is so huge, now, that mobile homes are stacked on top of each other, dozens high. His (an millions of others’) only escape from the drudgery of modern life is the OASIS, a virtual world where you can be anyone or anything you want to be. You might be the poorest, weakest kid in Peoria, but in the OASIS, you can be a giant ogre who can fight like Jet Li. That’s why it’s so popular in a world where everyone has been numbed to the fact that the world is shit.
James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) created the OASIS to be for everyone. Halliday, especially, wanted it to remain free for everyone with only some accessories costing money. (Most, though, can be won in game.) Morrow was the public face of the company, while Halliday was the private heart.
When Halliday died, he left the OASIS rudderless, but not without a future. He hid three keys to an Easter Egg somewhere in the game. Whoever found the Egg won control of the OASIS. So, Steve Wozniak meets Willy Wonka.
Wade (along with basically everyone else in the world) is after the Egg. In game, he’s Parzival, a fairly normal looking dude who drives a DeLoreon. His friend, Aech (Lena Waithe) is a master builder. He’s working on an Iron Giant in his machine shop. (I say “he” because in game, Aech is “he.” In the RL, though, she’s Helen Harris, an African-American lesbian. This would be a spoiler if it wasn’t already written everywhere. But Wade doesn’t find out until mid-movie…even though they’re best friends.)
In the race for the first key, Parzival meets Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), one of the leading “Gunters.” (That’s “Egg Hunter” to you and me, Russ.) In the way that so many movie characters are, he’s immediately in love…or something like it. He saves her from being killed by King Kong. She gives him a bit of a cold shoulder, but eventually goes back to Aech’s shop to get her motorcycle fixed. (Yes, it’s the one from Akira.) This starts a friendship that seems far more real an mutual than the one in the book.
Of course, there’s a villain after it, too. IOI, run by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), wants to get the Egg so that they can take over the OASIS and start charging for it. They want to commoditize the hell out of it. ‘Cause, why not, right?
Anyway, fun, Spielbergian adventure ensues.
Seriously, this movie is a LOT of fun. Spielberg took the bones of the book and had Cline and Zak Penn (of Marvel fame) take out most of the egregiously problematic bullshit. There’s no more gatekeeping (although Art3mis does a little bit to Parzival) and Art3mis does quite a bit of saving, herself. Oh, and all of that “But WE SHOULD BE TOGETHERRRRRRRRR” stuff? It’s gone. The relationship between Parzival and Art3mis (and Wade and Samantha) comes about way more organically and mutually, starting as a friendship.
The only problem, on a social level, that I really saw was the fact that TJ Miller was still in it. That guy’s a dickbag. Funny, sure. But a dickbag. BUT, I kinda understand why he’s still in it. When shit started coming out about Kevin Spacey, Ridley Scott was able to gather the crew back together to reshoot the 6 minutes of film that he was in with Christopher Plummer. It cost a couple mill, but it was pretty easy. They shot everything in about a day.
TJ Miller’s character in this is fully CGI, but based on his face. In order to change it, you have to get a full team of animators in, find a new actor, recreate a character, re-animate the entire 20 minutes or so that he’s in and, honestly, probably re-write the character, too, because it seemed to be based on Miller’s actual character, not just something that Cline and Penn wrote. It would have cost upwards of $20-30 million and months of work. (Principle photography was done in late 2016. The allegations against Miller came out in late 2017. Most of the work on his character was probably already done.) It was probably easier to take the backlash. Sad, but true.
Notice one thing that I did in this review: I barely mentioned the fact that all of these characters are obsessed with the 80s and there are, literally, 100s of references to 80s nostalgia. (I have a feeling that, even if I watch it 100 times, I still won’t catch all of them.) That’s because, while the 80s nostalgia is fun and I loved it, it wasn’t the entire point of the story. The characters didn’t talk in pop culture references, like an action version of Reality Bites. The 80s stuff was important, but not overwhelming.
What the movie is really about is reality vs fantasy. The OASIS is fantasy. It’s a fantasy that allows people to be who they want to be, sure. It allows them to escape from the hell that is their lives. But reality is just that: reality. You can’t live your life in a fantasy world. Because, as Halliday says, where else can you get a decent meal?
Is it as good as Spielberg of the 70s-90s? I mean…how do you top Raiders, Jaws or Jurassic Park? You don’t. He can’t make a movie like those again. I’m not asking for him to make another Raiders. All I want is a good movie, and this was definitely it. Absolutely. It’s a good, solid action movie that really immerses its audience into a new world. I saw it in 70mm 2D, but I hope to see it again in IMAX 3D. From what I hear, it’s a completely different experience. It’s the way that Spielberg meant for it to be seen.
Whether you liked the book or not, whether you think that it was a fun vision of a dystopian future or a geek-boy’s Twilight (seriously?), go check out the movie. It’s a ton of fun.