Looking back on my own notes, it seems I enjoyed reading Ernest Cline’s novel, Ready Player One, more than I remember. Over time, it has hardened into a something I don’t particularly like. Beloved for its voluminous pop cultural references, I always found the crutch of stroking nostalgia got in the way of an otherwise straightforward story.
Enter Steven Spielberg, one of the great visual storytellers of our time. His filmed version, which I caught at its SXSW world premiere, cuts through the cruft and puts characters front and center. Fans need not worry, though, this is a faithful adaptation that only improves upon the original. If you wanted to wrap yourself in Cline’s universe, it just got a lot bigger.
The story, written for the screen by Zak Penn along with Cline, takes place in the year 2045. Seemingly all commerce revolves around the OASIS, a virtual reality game world that functions as a social outlet. People pick an avatar and live their lives inside of the game. Wade Watts, our hero played by Tye Sheridan, lives in “The Stacks,” a squalid makeshift slum so-named because it consists of RVs, trailers and cars stacked atop one another. Since the world has gone virtual, people seem to have adapted to living in less space.
Watts wanders around the OASIS trying to solve a puzzle hidden by James Halliday, the deceased creator of this digital universe, played by the incomparable Mark Rylance. This seems to be the focus of most OASIS users, the most dedicated of whom are called “gunters,” short for “easter egg hunters.” You see, Halliday’s game revolves around his own childish obsessions, coming of age in the 1980s as he did. The prize, total control of the OASIS, is so great that amateurs like Watts aren’t the only ones on the trail. A company called Innovative Online Industries, or IOI, has hordes of virtual mercenaries and indentured servants scouring the digital realm for clues.
This is the setup; it’s a lot to take in at once. Penn and Cline’s script stumbles along trying to bring you into this world, opening with an extended voice over imparting about as much as I just did. Cline’s universe has the potential to be rich, but he, as its creator, can’t help but get in his own way, trying to make sure you see how reverent he is to the past.
The result is a film that is fun to watch, leads nowhere and has little to say. Which is strange because it feels like, today, in 2018, we are at a technological inflection point, one that makes the future of Ready Player One feel rich with relevance. Cline’s 2045 is a hellscape, one in which humanity has given itself over not only to the whims of a few technological oligarchs, but to the corrosive force of nostalgia. I’ve long wondered what happens when a generation raised on “28 Things Only 90s Kids Will Understand” listicles edges into middle age and tries to look back. The result is something like this film: a world where no culture seems to have been created for a generation; everyone was too busy looking back.
Steven Spielberg is a unique figure to take on a project that deals so heavily in memory and the future. Not only has his work provided indelible portraits of our past, as in Saving Private Ryan, he also entered this century providing a template for the future with Minority Report. For that film, the director famously convened a symposium of technologists in order to learn what technologies might actually be around in our lifetime. No such care seems to have been taken with Ready Player One, which seems to be all about hopping on a ride and never letting go. Weirdly, it fights against being a dystopic vision of the near future, despite the darkness right below the surface.
If Cline can’t help his indulgences toward fandom, Spielberg can’t help but compose incredible visuals. There are many scenes that cut back and forth between worlds real and virtual; his virtuoso eye for spatial details comes in quite handy here. The way armies of VR players are shown in multiple spaces will keep you thrilled, and certainly elevates the film to something stunning.
The film’s best set piece, which I won’t reveal but you’ll know it when you see it, is the closest Spielberg comes to having something to say about memory and nostalgia. We enter a well-trod universe that will not only reward those familiar with it, but may rewire the minds of those who haven’t experienced it yet. Once the film has been out for a bit, and perhaps after at least one more viewing, I will have plenty more to say on this.
Steven Spielberg is a director who can close up shop tomorrow and be remembered as one of the great directors of all time. And yet it is something of a gift to see him stretch out his creative muscles in this period of his career. He is clearly enjoying himself. He made the first Disney film of his career in 2016 with The BFG, and work is starting on a new West Side Story, which will mark a huge milestone in the director’s career (he has reportedly always wanted to make a musical). Something has changed in his approach to the projects he takes on. These years may well turn out to be his most fertile and active of his career.
Ready Player One is at times thrilling, but it’s unfortunate it doesn’t have more to say. The stakes of the quest are completely out of whack, and the film’s resolution (and closing shot) feel incredibly weak given the scale of the world we imagine the OASIS to be. Spielberg, however, remains one of my favorite directors to watch from film to film. There are techniques at play here that I hope come up again in his other films. If nothing else it is fun, popcorn fodder. Perhaps that’s all we need to chew on right now.