READY. PLAYER. ONE. …Spielberg’s film of the novel, In Review

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UPDATED: 08/12/2018.  (I was a little hard on this one — to say the least.  Don’t get me wrong, there are still things from the book that I truly miss, here and there.  But having recently viewed the film a handful of times at home, I have revised my thinking from a negative position, to a very positive one.  And although I have decided to let my original review stand (both for the sake of honesty as well as posterity,) I think in all fairness, I should disclose that much of what once bothered me about Spielberg’s film of the book is no longer an issue for me.  I do still have problems with both the handheld camera work when Sorrento is searching the IOI War Room for Art3mis, as well as the really bad old age makeup applied to actor Simon Pegg at film’s end.  But everything else I am now dealing with just fine, and retract all other complaints.  I’ve also read that author Ernest Cline is working on a sequel: Ready Player Two.  Perhaps that will become a Netflix limited series, allowing for a longer run-time.  The only real problem with Ready Player One is that the film needs a longer run-time to better establish and appreciate the OASIS.   In any event, I am changing my attitude and recommending the film.  Hopefully no one was put off too much by my ridiculously scathing review.  Be well. ~ Jim)    

Let’s start and end with the book.  Ernest Cline’s ‘Ready Player One’ centers on a teenager named Wade Watts, who spends much of his time in 2045 Oklahoma City (Columbus, Ohio in the film,) within an online virtual world.  He goes to virtual school there, he hangs out in his best friend’s virtual basement there, he watches movies there, listens to music there, plays virtual video games there …  You get the idea.  In contrast, twenty-six years from now the real world has become humanity’s compromise in the face of economic upheaval, environmental catastrophe, and overcrowding.  Things have gotten so bad that mobile home trailers aren’t lined up in out-of-the-way trailer parks, anymore.  No, to save space, they’re stacked sky high all over town.  And just like everybody else across the globe, Wade Watts is jacked into the next generation of the internet much of the time, to delude himself from it all; with a highly advanced version of an Oculus headset wrapping his vision with on-line computer generated imagery, of astonishing detail.

This new technological frontier is called, ‘The Oasis.’ 

Visualize from a great distance, a series of interconnecting solar systems, partitioned in space utilizing the framework of a Rubik’s Cube.  Within these online planetary systems, are tens of thousands of worlds, with more being perpetually added.  You get up in the morning, place a headset over your eyes, and you step inside a virtual world where the rules are not the same as the real world.  And inside the Oasis, you can be anybody you want to be, because no one knows who you really are or what you really look like.  And vice versa.  Everywhere you look, you are presented with the unimaginable and the truly unpredictable.  Willy Wonka described it best: “pure imagination.”

ready-player-oneBut there’s a monetary catch.  It works like this: you pay for everything within the Oasis, except a base avatar (your personal computer generated image within the Oasis,) and the base set of abilities you need to function.  If you wish to wear a better avatar, say you want to be a licensed property like Kurt Russell’s ‘Jack Burton’ in Big Trouble in Little China, or perhaps RoboCop, then you have to pay for it.  If you want to travel the Oasis, and visit the multitude of worlds, such as everything from planets emulating popular video games, or even a world carefully constructed to emulate the television sitcom, Family Ties, then naturally, you have to pay to get there.  If you want weapons or magical abilities, you pay.  If you want a full immersion rig, i.e., a real world physical harness and revolving rig you climb into, that better interacts with the online world — then you pay big.  Naturally, there are ways around paying out of pocket.  By winning battles in virtual video games, you win massive amounts of bitcoin.  Currency which will remain in reserve in your account to be utilized at your leisure.  But regardless of this fail-safe, most people who travel, play, party, study, work, and generally communicate within the Oasis, still fall into two groups: the haves and and have-nots.

This next gen internet was created by a computer geek/Steve Jobs competitor, named James Halliday.  When the Oasis first went online, in 2025, Halliday was already a very wealthy man, having created various successful video games and software platforms.  But ‘Jim’ Halliday had saved his greatest creation for last.  He wanted to connect people in perhaps a way that he had never been able to connect to anyone, himself.  And the Oasis was intended to be his gift to the world.  In profile, Halliday was an unremarkable, socially innocent figure.  Possibly autistic.  In point of fact, whether or not his obsessive reverence for 1980’s pop-culture was a symptom of a form of autism, is never made clear.  But either way, no one really cared.  The Oasis had taken over the daily lives of almost everyone on the planet so fast, that generally everyone came to idolize its creator.  So when Halliday suddenly died in 2044, and left behind an easter egg treasure hunt for three keys hidden within the Oasis that lead the winner to Halliday’s personal fortune, as well as control of the Oasis itself, you can imagine the broad spectrum of responses.

Much of the world’s destitute population immediately began studying Halliday’s favorite aspects of 1980’s pop-culture, searching for clues to the locations of the three hidden keys, which lead to the easter egg.  And of course those who showed the most enthusiasm, were the new generation of teenagers.  Thus, Cline’s story begins (2045: one year later,) with teenagers nicknamed ‘Gunters’ (egg hunters) having searched the Oasis, high and low, without pause, but also without having made any headway.  In tandem, the world’s largest internet provider, a multi-trillion dollar corporation called I.O.I. (Innovative Online Industries,) has spent a fortune hiring young people nicknamed ‘Sixers’ (they each wear an employee # that starts with 6, and ‘check your six, they may be behind you,’) to stack the deck in its own favor.  Did I mention that after successfully claiming the three hidden keys, the winner will face the avatar of James Halliday himself?  And said winner could either be an unknown underdog, or an emissary of evil corporate America.  In the words of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day: “It was just a question of which one of them would reach him first. “

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During a truly perilous journey, Wade Watts (avatar name: Parzival) works alongside his best friend in the virtual world, and fellow treasure hunter, Aech (pronounced ‘H,’) along with a female avatar Wade develops an enormous crush on, named Art3mis.  They are joined by Daito & Shoto; two Asian kids who also make it onto the scoreboard.  And all five are hounded by ‘Sixers’ whose strings are being pulled by I.O.I.’s Head of Operations Executive,  Nolan Sorrento.  Who in the book turns out to be a bonafide sociopath.

Please be aware, from here on, spoilers abound in respect to the recently released film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s book ‘Ready Player One.’  

LEVEL ONE

Now let me make something clear.  In general, I enjoyed the movie and thought about half the scenes within the Oasis were fun.  It was charming.  But having said that, you don’t need to be a clairvoyant to perceive the truly fantastic film that could have been made out of Ernest Cline’s book.  Taken on its own merit (as it should be,) the book is a truly transcendental love letter to 1980’s pop-culture, as well as an entire generation who grew up in said era.  It is a kind of storytelling that reaches an unexpected place in the heart of the most unexpected of random people.  And whether you were a teenager in the 80’s or not, it’s a book I highly recommend anyone read.  Stories which are this well devised don’t come around often.  But when they do, they capture your imagination in such a way that you are at once both transported into the story,  and also compelled to draw almost conspiracy level parallels to the real world, currently around you.  That’s really where the fun is.  And while that can sometimes happen with a movie, it didn’t happen here.  No, here a divergent version of the story has been created, which seems to have re-purposed much of the material, and dropped 1990’s anime and video game cameos like little poodle bombs, all over the place.

It is ironic that the last book similar in imagination and thrills to ‘Ready Player One,’ was Michael Crichton’s techno-thriller, ‘Jurassic Park.’  So logic follows that the director of that film adaptation, Steven Spielberg, would be the first set of hands the galleys for ‘Ready Player One’ would wind up in.  Seems like a match made in heaven, right?  Well yes, and … not quite.  I would say he both succeeded and failed, here.  And I suspected that would be the case even before I had finished reading the novel.  Let me explain.  And let’s start not with the essence of the sentiment that the book is trying to convey, and whether or not the chosen director’s heart is really ‘in it,’ so to speak.  Let’s instead focus on the current artistic identity of the filmmaker himself.

When you remove the possibility of a highly expensive Netflix limited series of 9 one-hour episodes (which would have been the ideal avenue to adapt this material,) what you are left with is a list of requirements for the director of a theatrical feature film, that only a name brand like ‘Steven Spielberg’ could fill.  Keep in mind, said ‘requirements’ include concerns among investors, insurance companies, studio heads, studio board members, studios stock holders, the multitude of companies that own the intellectual property rights which will be referenced during the film, and a partridge in a pair tree…  You getting my drift?  But while they see Spielberg as their savior in this situation, Spielberg isn’t really the same director he used to be.  Spielberg has moved on.  He’s even publicly stated that he’s past his popcorn days.  And it’s very likely that Studios in Hollywood are tone deaf to this fact.  So perhaps ‘yesterdays’ Spielberg would have been perfectly cast as a director for this project, but maybe ‘today’s’ Spielberg, not so much.  Spielberg admitted in recent interviews that this is one of the three hardest films he’s ever made in his career.  The other two being JAWS, and Saving Private Ryan.  To be fair, he also intimated that his work with the Computer Effects teams is really to blame, but again, his lack of … I don’t mean to say affection, I don’t mean to say enthusiasm … no, his lack of compassion for the source material, betrays the simple fact that Ready Player One is not exactly a film ‘today’s’ Steven Spielberg, holds dear.  And that is definitively one of the big problems this film adaptation has.

In truth, it’s very unlikely that Spielberg has any loyalty whatsoever to the 1980’s pop-culture references that give Ernest Cline’s story its added spark.  Spielberg was a teenager in the 1960’s.  And in the 1980’s, he was in his 30’s.  Added, he was working quite a bit, throughout the 80’s, and therefore his personal tastes are likely highly divergent to that of a 1980’s teenager.  Why does this matter, you ask?  Because changes were made from book to screen, that are things that make ‘ya say, ‘hmmmm,’ that’s why.  Arbitrary changes.  And while some of them make sense (like having Art3mis be the one who goes inside I.O.I.,) others are just puzzling to no end.  Unless, of course, you simply accept the fact that the filmmaker didn’t truly understand the source material to begin with.

So let’s investigate the differences, break them down into their various necessities, and ascribe meaning to them.  I kid because I care.  Now let’s talk some trash.

LEVEL TWO

1. The Music: the new version of the Willy Wonka theme ‘pure imagination,’ so ever-present in more than one of the trailers, was noticeably absent from the finished film.  Why??  You can listen here: https://youtu.be/XTPCwA1AcPk  Or better yet, why not just license the original song from the 1970 film, and use that?  And why was John Williams’ Superman The Movie theme used prominently in a key scene in a trailer, and then not used in the same scene in the finished film?  Also, a handful of songs, such as ‘Tom Sawyer,’ by Rush, which were also utilized in various trailers, were A.W.O.L, as well.  Those who have read the book remember well that ‘Rush’ was James Halliday’s favorite band, and figures into the plot with some importance.  So why was the song only used for marketing the film??  Fine; okay, we’ll let that slide.

2. While I generally enjoyed Ready Player One (I chuckled now and then, and was pleasantly surprised now and then) I still knew early on while watching the film that ‘Cinematic Game Changer’ Steven Spielberg was the wrong director for this project.  ‘Today’s’ Steven Spielberg just didn’t feel it.  And the emotion at the core of the story, is the core of the story.  It’s like a map that leads you everywhere you need to go.  Thus, it seems the heart of the movie has either been left on the editing room floor, or discarded very early on in the ‘Development Process.’  A friend pointed out that there must be footage missing, as Wade’s body suit somehow ends up in the possession of his Aunt’s boyfriend.  The boyfriend is seen wearing it, just before their trailer explodes in the stacks.  And the more we chatted about it, the more we agreed that there must be other pieces which had to be missing from the finished film, as well.  In fact, one could generally estimate the missing footage to clock in at around thirty minutes.  At least, if not more.  Not good.  Not good vibes, here, people.

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3. There are multiple differences in the plot of the book, to that of the film.  I won’t waste the reader’s time with an academic dissertation, but a few of them are key to understanding the true meaning behind the book.  Therefore it baffles that they specifically would be omitted.  A good example would be that in the book, acquiring the first key is something that Wade does himself, alone.  There is no race for the key.  There is no King Kong.  Wade simply figured something out first.  Before anyone else.  And THAT is what’s amazing and euphoric about it.  Then it turns out that another ‘Gunter’ named Art3mis has also figured it out.  And neither of them needed anyone’s help to do so.  They simply kept looking for clues in the framework of Halliday’s imagination.  Each find a cave hidden within the Oasis, and after navigating a series of booby-traps, play and win a game of ‘Joust’ against a character from the famous board game, Dungeons & Dragons.  And please know, we are talking about the classic cabinet Arcade Game ‘Joust.’  It’s the type of video game you would have seen in an actual Arcade in the early 1980’s.  And not a big action sequence, as is presented in the film adaptation.  And because of that, it’s a more isolated, clever scene.  And genuinely more thrilling.  “But that is not what ‘they’ would have you believe.” ~ Jerry Seinfeld

But that is not

4. Among other key differences, which feel like more arbitrary changes, is the Flicksync, or WarGames roleplaying test Halliday set up requiring gamers speak all of actor Matthew Broderick’s dialogue in the film WarGames, just so they can ‘clear a gate,’ and move on to the next round.  Something that would have been hilarious, if telegraphed in the film version.  But alas, that element of the story is noticeably absent.  Also, the Blade Runner Voight-Kampff test, which has been replaced in the film, with an uneven sequence taking place ‘inside’ the movie, The Shining.  And don’t misunderstand me, the live action interiors of the Overlook Hotel are a startling moment in the film.  But in its entirety, The Shining sequence in the film, winds up representing everything really bad about modern cinema: U.E.C.G.I. (Unnecessary Excuse for Computer Generated Imaging)  There’s no logic behind it, and it’s not as fun as it should be.  Especially since it concludes with yet another bad take on Disney’s ‘The Haunted Mansion.’  The taste of it was so bad … it was just … I was ill.  Bring me Teddy Grahams, STAT!

5. Is there magic in the movie?  Occasionally.  But it’s low level.  People will be picking apart superficial cameos in the background for years, I’m sure.  But the real magic of the book, along with the emotion associated with it, is kept on a very tight leash, and behind a very high fence.  In other words, this isn’t your grandfather’s Spielberg.  There’s too much context missing.  In Spielberg’s film, we never really get a concrete understanding of why the Oasis is so important.  In the book, Wade sums it up by saying, “The moment I began searching for the egg, the future no longer seemed so bleak.”  But in the film, it’s a bit too nebulous as to why it matters.  And very sorely missed is the presence of the Great Og, alias Ogden Morrow.  The friend who helped Halliday create the Oasis.  He pops up in the book a lot.  Including as an invisible presence in Aech’s basement, at one point.  And while in the book his character is of more importance, and has a certain depth and purpose, in the film adaptation Simon Pegg comes off as a nothing more than a peripheral character.  You don’t get the sense of the friendship between he and Halliday.  You don’t have any understanding of their falling out.  And although Pegg is seen in a couple of flashbacks early on, when Morrow eventually shows up at the end of the movie, it’s just Simon Pegg in the worst old age make-up you have ever seen in a movie.  And his purpose there is to patronize the intelligence of the audience.  And by the way, before I forget … whattheHELL is ‘The Resistance!?’  I mean what exactly was the meaning of THAT ridiculous ass-banana fuckery, anyway??

6. Personally, in Spielberg’s film, I really missed the throwaway things that made the story so special.  Seeing Wade/Parzival go to school in the Oasis, or seeing him sit down in Aech’s basement, and pick up and start reading an old copy of Starlog Magazine.  I missed at least one reference to The Last Starfighter.  I also missed the space travel — which you knew would be awesome, and yet is completely absent from the film.  I missed that wonderful endless multilevel mall of Arcades, where Wade/Parzival finds the quarter.  I miss the way the kids Wade/Parzival and Samantha/Art3mis don’t meet until the end of the story, and the punch of emotion you get when they do.  I missed how the five kids in the story subverted the system, and how they all had contact with one another in private, encrypted chat rooms.  I missed the darker parts of the story.  The fact that Sorrento disguised the bombing of Wade’s trailer as a meth lab accident.  I also miss seeing Daito being thrown from his real world balcony, by ‘Sixers’ after Sorrento has discovered his true identity.  (although I would have altered this so that Daito survived.)   And last but certainly not least, I miss Anorak’s Almanac.  For further explanation of that one, you’ll have to read Ernest Cline’s book.

7. Are there things in the book which should have been left out?  Absolutely.  As I stated before, in the book Wade is the one who infiltrates the big bad corporation, I.O.I.  And it’s such a harrowing experience that when Wade makes his escape (and remember, he’s well aware that Daito has been murdered by I.O.I,) he stops by a vending machine and purchases a gun.  That would be the first thing to go.  In fact the only change made from the book to the film which I was truly thrilled with, was the Wade/Parzival conversation with Halliday, after the game is won.  And that amazing moment when Halliday admits that he’s dead, but claims his avatar … is not really an avatar.   Implying, of course, that Halliday died and chose to live in the afterlife as a ghost in his own machine.  How?  I dunno.  But I bought it.

Ninety-nine percent of these cumulative alterations are almost certainly the work of either Development Executives, or Steven Spielberg himself.  And they add up to a gradual shift in the focus of the material.  Away from what made the book special, and deep into a place which simply smells of focus group marketing.

LEVEL THREE

The final, and most heinous source of trouble, is, as always, the simple act of placing a cross-promotional ‘product’ like ‘Ready Player One’ in the hands of Corporate America.  That’s asking for trouble.  Corporate America has clearly taken over the creative side of the movie business.  To date, and with as much success as failure, Studio Executives in casual dress, have quietly been micromanaging the plotting of most big budget movies we’ve all been watching, for about the last twenty years or so.  It is therefore likely that novelist Ernest Cline (who contributed his own early draft of the screenplay,) screenwriter Zak (Last Action Hero) Penn (who was brought in for a new draft,) and even director Steven Spielberg himself, are all along for the ride, here.

True, when addressed point-by-point, you can dismiss a lot of my condemnation of the film.  But when you add it all up … it’s a different story.  Enough circumstantial evidence always does that.  I’m making valid points when I tell you that all realism available in the original source material, has vanished from it’s film adaptation.  I’m being honest when I say that all sentiment was changed, or that all understanding of our generation and the book’s connection to our generation was essentially severed; removed, altogether.  But maybe it will help if I make a sideways comparison.  This year (2018) is the 50th Anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Therefore I show reverence by quoting from its author, Arthur C. Clarke.  “I am often asked about ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ — what does it all mean?  And my response is always this: read the book, see the movie, and repeat the prescription as often as necessary.”  In that spirit, I personally advise that reading ‘Ready Player One,’ then watching the movie, and then reading the book again, will indeed leave you with a joyful, sometimes extraordinary reading experience — but alas, a merely ‘typical’ movie going experience.  Mostly because it’s impossible to watch the movie Ready Player One, and ignore the parallel that in reality Corporate America succeeded in taking over the Oasis.
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2 responses

  1. Martha Brozak

    Very well written. Now I can hardly wait to read the book, see the movie and read the book again.

    April 4, 2018 at 9:43 PM

  2. Thanks for the review. I had no expectations for Ready Player One beforehand and hadn’t read the book either. That’s why I guess I could watch it without putting any pressure on it. And I really liked it and found it entertaining. And, of course, it’s wonderfully beautiful to watch. I also started reading the book and it seem nice as well. 9/10 was my rating.

    February 26, 2019 at 11:52 AM

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