I wanted to like “Ready Player One” with a determination that bordered on the forceful. This was mainly because I picked up the book over the summer and really enjoyed it, but no one around me appeared to share that sentiment. The film actually seemed to get most of its backlash before it was even released, which felt a bit unfair. But upon actually seeing the movie and having a chance to be disappointed by it, I’m starting to feel a bit less defensive of its source material.
Personally, I can’t say the movie’s better than the book. I found the novel to be more entertaining and engaging overall, and that it presented much more interesting ideas, despite lacking the self-awareness to actually use them. I also can’t say the book’s better than the movie, which suffered from insufferable narration and dialogue. Sure, the movie repairs some of the book’s major plot annoyances (re: Wade’s stalking and the constant, pedantic listing of 80’s pop culture references), but at the price of about a dozen more (which I’ll cover in detail later on), so with both in mind, it makes it very difficult to continue to appreciate either of the stories on their own. This isn’t to say I’d condemn either of them; if you turn off your brain for two hours, “Ready Player One” is a pretty entertaining film with some neat ideas and fun visuals. And if you don’t read Ernest Cline’s despicably misogynistic slam poem “Nerd Porn Auteur” first, you can enjoy the author’s self-insert fanfiction just fine.
I plan to talk a little more about the novel later, but this blog wouldn’t be called Reel Talk if I were writing book reviews. So let’s get right into it. By far, this movie’s biggest failure lies in its introduction. The first thing it does is hit us with relentless, annoying narration. The first three-odd minutes of this movie’s audio are completely unsalvageable; just pure force-fed exposition. There were so many places it would have made sense to put that; in Halliday’s memory archives, or any of the IOI meetings, even the newspaper clippings in Wade’s trailer. I understand that the book was built on all sorts of miniscule details, but trying to cram all that into a feature film was a big mistake. In a book with as many paragraphs of pop culture inventory as “Ready Player One,” there are plenty of unnecessary bits that could have been cut out easily.
Some say “Ready Player One” suffers from a reliance on recognizable pop culture references. Maybe the popularity of the movie does, but the plot certainly doesn’t. The book’s narrative depended on the characters knowing everything about the ’80s, but in the movie, it just seems more like decoration. And it was bold of them to think that the entire OASIS would ignore anything that came out beyond 1989 because it was irrelevant to the egg hunt. The whole world is logged in; some people are bound not to care.
On the more positive end of things, there are still things about this movie that I really enjoyed. A lot of the in-game details were really fun, like how they portrayed online shopping in the OASIS. There’s also a scene where the characters are transported into “The Shining,” and it’s obvious a lot of care was taken to get the details just right (except for the zombies. I haven’t seen “The Shining” in a while, but I’m pretty sure there were no zombies). The part where all the Sixers are freaking out over the Shining challenge was probably my favorite part of the movie, and it really highlights the contrast between our perfect nerd heroes and the bureaucratic casuals they’ve been pitted against. It’s also, like I said before, a much-needed change that Wade doesn’t begin stalking Art3mis after she breaks up with him to focus on the egg hunt (although to be fair, at that point in the movie, they don’t have a relationship to begin with). Art3mis also has a nice moment toward the end where she modifies her avatar to have the same birthmark she has on her face irl (although this moment wouldn’t have any impact at all if they hadn’t revealed her true self to the audience painfully, anticlimactically early).
And now, back to the novel. I think the differences between the movie and its source material can be best illustrated in the way the first challenge of the egg hunt was designed. In the movie, it’s a big CGI-fueled drag race through a sprawling metropolis, where racers have to find their way around perilous roads, giant monsters and each other. To avoid these obstacles, the player must drive through the course backwards, as per a clue from deep within Halliday’s museum of memories (the movie’s replacement for Halliday’s Almanac, which supplies players with their borrowed ’80s nostalgia in the novel). In the book, Wade discovers the first challenge in a cave on Ludus (the planet on which the OASIS’s schools are located). The climax of this dungeon crawl is a seemingly simple game of Joust with a Lich. This challenge is a lot more reliant on straight pop culture knowledge from the Almanac (and many, many hours playing old arcade games), and is definitely representative of the skills players need to find the keys in the novel. It’s also noteworthy that Halliday placed the dungeon on Ludus, a planet where children would be the most likely people to discover it; a planet where huge corporations like IOI wouldn’t think to look. The movie’s race is a lot more easily accessible, which takes away that piece of insight into how Halliday wanted his game to be played, and the twist is a whole lot simpler; so simple, you wonder why it took five years for anybody to try it. But in spite of it all, the challenge is bigger, gaudier, and a lot more fun to watch than a simple arcade game. Neither of these scenes is better or worse than the other, in my opinion. The book just had more space to go into (excruciating) detail, whereas the movie could give us scenes that were more visually interesting. And in the end, neither of them is really worth a reread/rewatch anyway.