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Ready Player Two via YouTube…and he’s not a nice player
You find me in an odd situation, dear reader. Today’s adaptation of a popular novel comes from one of my favorite directors of all time, Steven Spielberg. The source material also happens to be one of the few books I stopped reading because I hated the main protagonist so much. Actually, “hate” doesn’t do my feeling justice; more like, “fiery crusading loathing.” The literary version of Wade Watts ranks high among my most detestable protagonists of Holden Caufield and Bella Swan. So I went into the film version of Ready Player One with a very mixed perception of one of my strongest enjoyments meeting one of my most reviled pieces of fiction. How did the movie fare? Let’s chat it up.
So Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in 2045 Columbus, Ohio, a semi-dystopian world where overpopulation have forced trailer park residents to stack their mobile homes on top of each other. Wade is like most people in this weird future that religiously play a virtual reality game called the “Oasis” created by the brilliant James Halliday (Mark Rylance) in order to escape the “terrible future” (that we really never see). Among the things to do in the game, Wade and the other players also spend their time hunting down an Easter Egg hiden somewhere in the virtual world by Halliday right before he passed away, finding said egg grants the player complete control of the Oasis as well as the creator’s entire fortune valued at a trillion dollars. However, an evil massive corporation called IOI lead by the sneering Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) wants to find the Egg in order to highly monetize the Oasis. So, Wade ends up teaming up with other players like Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao), and Daito (Win Morisaki) in order to beat Sorrento to the Egg.
So first things first, I enjoyed the film much better than what I had read in the book. This feeling mostly comes from the fact that I hated the literary version of Wade Watts so damn much for being ignorantly proud of how much pop culture he absorbed. In the book, he, no shit, talks about nostalgia the way Patrick Bateman talks about business cards, it’s fucking disturbing. Wade in the movie is much more of an every man…but not much else. He’s at least not a horrid wretch of a character like in the book, but I wish I had more to relate to the protagonist I’m following for two hours of my precious life. The problem is that because Spielberg sandblasted all personality off of Wade, his motivation for acquiring the Egg is purely selfish but he’s barely confronted about his desire and so he experiences no character arc despite the climax claiming otherwise.
Now a character I did like what the filmmakers retooled would be James Halliday. Aside from employing the eternally entertaining Mark Rylance, Halliday is reinvisioned less of a Steve Jobs-guru like in the book and more a complicated individual suffering from a clear neurological disorder that prevents him from connecting with other people. On top of that, the film also significantly changes many of the challenges that lead to the Egg into an exploration of many of Halliday’s regrets in his life as well as his own frustration in failing to relate to other people. Through Rylance, Halliday genuinely comes across as a tragic figure that really grounded the movie for me before the bukkake of pop culture references that flooded my eyeballs (but more on that later). For now, Halliday represents the best of Ready Player One, and if the heart that was dedicated to exploring this character had carried over to every other main and supporting character, I would have given this film a very enthusiastic rating.
But that’s not the world we find ourselves in. Instead, we have to follow the cardboard cutout of Wade flirt (poorly) with Art3mis before confessing his love for her after, no shit, roughly an hour of knowing each other. It’s portrayed more as a puppy-love romance, but the exchange yanked me right out of the goddamn film. Though not as much when you meet Art3mis’ true identity of Samantha and find that she prefers to hide away in the Oasis to cover up her hideous deformation of…a birthmark on her face. She looks totally fine but she regards her visage as horrifying as the Phantom of the friggin’ Opera regards his gruesome image. Further, this role really feels like a waste of Olivia Cooke’s talents after she knocked me out with her performance in Thoroughbreds last week. The whole romance angle falls comically flat, which is a shame because the film at least succeeds in getting a decent buddy relationship established between Wade and the character of H. Though the later has an interesting reveal that seems to go unremarked upon by the end of the film, because the movie was way too concerned with shoving as much Warner Brothers intellectual property rights into your screaming face.
Practically every scene in the movie is loaded with as many pop culture references as possible from video games to movies to television shows to comics. While it’s kind of fun to see all these asides like you would in The Lego Batman Movie or Wreck-It Ralph, barely any of the references have a good joke or a clever gag about the situation. It’s merely the film saying “recognize this and laugh you sheep.” Which is honestly the school of thought from film cancer like Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer with their seminal works of Disaster Movie and Meet the Spartans. At least Ready Player One has the good sense not to include any of these walking advertisements to keep their friggin’ mouths shut, but it did made me raise the question: what the hell is the bloody point of their inclusion at all?
In the book, I get why Ernest Cline included such a wealth of random pop culture knowledge: because Halliday’s game required knowledge of the various entertainments that comforted him as a child, the protagonist utilizes said knowledge to navigate the game’s various challenges. But like I said, many of Halliday’s challenges for the film are reconfigured to be reflective of important moments in his own life rather an obsession with various video games and movies; and yet the film still beats you over the head with the plethora of references. What’s even stranger is taking iconic pieces of popular culture and doing nothing with what they’re connected for or just misinterpreting them entirely. For example, Wade uses the DeLorean from Back to the Future as his primary means of transport and never once uses it for time-altering shenanigans…he used a Rubix cube with the trilogy’s director’s name instead. Additionally, and much fuss has been made about this other example, the titular Iron Giant being used as an instrument of war despite how antithetical that usage is to the character.
Now, the stalwarts of this movie will rush to defend these decisions as “Oh but they’re just cosmetic mods used by the various players in the world! It’s not really the Iron Giant or the DeLorean Time Machine.” And I accept the film’s excuse for that…but that does not exempt their inclusion from the criticism that they serve no other purpose for being in the movie besides telling the audience, “Recognize this!” Honestly, I would have been fine with all of this had the film taken time with its characters to explain what these characters meant to them. Or hell, since the movie was practically fond of its references, it could use the Scott Pilgrim vs. The World technique of using these pop culture references as visual shorthand to explain complex emotions or thoughts. But no, it’s all merely dropped around the screen like an uncaring babysitter tossing all your toys around and saying “pick whatever you like and play whatever you like, I don’t care.”
Which is a damn shame because the computer effects to depict this virtual world are honestly impressive. Spielberg hired a top-notch production studio to make sure everything you see looks amazing. And I would be lying if I said I wasn’t having fun watching some of the action sequences play out. There was some genuine imagination thrown in here that reminded me of all the best parts of Spielberg’s Tintin film. But as I’ve said with each of the Transformers films, if I don’t have characters I care about then an action scene feels completely lifeless to me.
I’ve teetered between a Rental and a Matinee for a whole week as I’ve wracked my head around this movie. On one hand, it represents one of Spielberg’s massive overhauls of poor or overwritten source material like Jaws and Jurrassic Park respectively, and the reworking of Halliday into a tragic figure seeking an heir who wouldn’t repeat his mistakes does genuinely work. But on the other, there wasn’t a single character I gave a shit about and the references ultimately felt hollow to me. It’s hardly one of Spielberg’s worst but this is nowhere near his weak good stuff like Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Doom. The effects are good enough to warrant a theater visit so I’ll give this a low…
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