Think you’re an ‘80s buff? Think again. Steven Spielberg delivers an unprecedented combination of retrophilia and high concept storytelling with his latest sci-fi/adventure blockbuster, Ready Player One. Based off Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, Ready Player One enlivens a future in love with the past, yet fails on a more basic level of storytelling.
The year is 2045. Society has fled its dystopian surroundings through virtual reality, specifically through a fully immersive and infinitely expandable platform, the OASIS. Follow Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) on his quest to find the immeasurable wealth of the platform’s idiosyncratic creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), and secure the future of the virtual world.
There’s something in Ready Player One for everyone. Sci-fi lovers will be hooked immediately by the film’s heavy use of virtual reality, ‘80s fanboys will rejoice over endless references and themes and suckers for romance will connect with the hero’s quest for forbidden love. Falling under the first two categories, I found myself giddy at some of my favorite movies making appearances in a story John Scalzi sharply calls a decided “nerdgasm.”
There are two main ways to look at this film: in light of its source material and apart from it. As an adaptation of Cline’s novel, Spielberg falls well short in his reprisal. The heart of the story, Halliday and Watts’ shared love for the 1980s, is only implicitly characterized in the film while spanning nearly a hundred pages in the novel. Watts, the protagonist, is also underserved in his characterization, as the film jumps right into the dizzying fray before ingratiating the viewer with the noble nerd from Columbus. Later parts in the story suffer from similar pacing issues, as Spielberg fails to adapt the 500-page novel into a measured, coherent film. Having recently read the novel and loved it, I was particularly disappointed with Spielberg failing to capture the magic that pervades every page of Cline’s original work.
Apart from the source material, Ready Player One is a visually stunning, occasionally clumsy sci-fi adventure. Sequences from some of the 1980s most iconic works are purely delightful. DeLoreans, Nintendo 64s and the Millennium Falcon are just a few of the relics that find their way into the movie. Those sharp enough will catch the more subtle nods in almost every frame, while I personally had the most fun in the Overlook Hotel.
Story elements do tend to falter apart from Cline’s novel as well. Any movie with such deficient setup and pacing will struggle to be compelling, especially given the avatar sequences that feel more like a video game than a film after a while.
All in all, Spielberg takes an expansive, delightful source material and condenses it down into a high concept, hurried two-hour adventure flick. The most faithful adaptation of Cline’s sublime novel would’ve been a 10-hour miniseries, as Spielberg’s film cannot possibly immerse us in the world of Wade Watts and James Halliday in two hours. Adventure lovers make haste to the theater, Cline fanatics beware: Ready Player One mixes the novel’s bold imagination and effusive retrophilia with Spielberg big budget bravado to achieve middling marks at 6.5/10.