I really liked Ready Player One. As far as critical analysis, that’s not exactly the kind of concise deconstruction I go for, but it’s difficult to avoid over-complicating a thing that isn’t very complicated. The fact that I liked it came as a kind of surprise, however. I read the book that it is based on years ago when I received it, rather appropriately and uninvitedly, in a Loot Crate box. And much like Loot Crate, the movie itself is chock full of nostalgic tchotchke; junky toys referencing everything geek culture, from your Star Trek/Wars, Firefly, Batman, Doctor Who, to Power Rangers/Voltron, blah blah, etc., etc., that, when taken individually has little to no value but when lumped together in a big orgiastic cornucopia of nostalgia is actually kind of a blast, somehow, even though in the long run you know you’re just playing with memories of fun. The book itself is absolutely that, an entertaining read that falls apart under scrutiny or disappears between the couch cushions, it’s a bit wish-fulfillment, a lot of idealizing, and more than a little bit derivative but, in it’s unabashed enthusiasm and self-awareness, is successful in being what it sets out to be: fun. The film version, directed by Steven Spielberg with a script from author Ernest Cline and the wretched Zak Penn, amplifies that experience the way Guy Fieri amplifies an appetizer menu in the sense that it’s easy to make fun of the movie equivalent of Trash Can Brisket Nachos but we’re all much better off just going for the ride.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that a film version would be superior to the book, this is largely a visual story and it’s a little bit underwhelming to read about someone playing an 8-bit Atari video game. The representation of the Oasis itself, the virtual online Universe that is the setting for most of the movie, is as visually sumptuous and vivid as one could hope for and so overly saturated with pop culture characters and references that it’s going to keep the Achievement Hunters busy for days, possibly weeks, to track them all down. This is the aspect of the book that I was convinced would overwhelm the basic quest narrative, the need to rely entirely on these references and nostalgia to keep the audience amused, but this is Spielberg, of course. The man is nothing if not good at young adult characters stumbling through an adventure, and it’s the charming cast that persists as the focus. In fact a lot of it, particularly the finale, kept reminding me of The Goonies (directed by Richard Donner, but produced by Spielberg) with its themes of adults trying to steal everything magic and fun from the world and the kids doing their best to stop them.
What was a legitimate surprise is the tightening and pacing of the story itself, with first time scripter in Cline and Zak Penn, whose collaborations with Simon Kinberg succeeded in middling the comic book universe with gems like Elektra, X-Men 3: The Last Stand, and his original script for The Avengers that Joss Whedon promptly chucked out a window. But where his dialogue is usually monosyllabic and overly simplistic, in Ready Player One, it’s perfectly fine and I chuckled more than a few times. The big improvements are in the challenges themselves, the book had a real Slumdog Millionaire feel to it where it just so happens that Wade was an EXPERT at that particularly specific game. This lost some of relatability and sense of suspense but in the movie there is a lot more emphasis on the teamwork aspect of the hunt and what can be called detective work. It doesn’t have mysteries the audience is expected to solve, however it’s solutions are relatively satisfying within the logic of the movie. One sequence in particular, and I don’t say this very often because it’s a dumb, overused cliche, however it does apply, was absolutely jaw-dropping and not because of spectacle or volume or choreography or any of the usual reasons that descriptor is used. It had me floored because of its fidelity, because of an accuracy to a thing that I will not spoil and because it was, as a film lover, the one thing that would have sold me on the Oasis immediately. I want to see it in the real world some day.
Speaking of loving film, I like to read and watch other people’s reviews of things to keep a perspective and while I am guilty of piling onto a thing if it really deserves it, if it really ruins a good concept or idea (I’m looking in your direction, The Cloverfield Paradox), I do not understand the current Comic Book Guy trend of viciously tearing into a movie that happens to only be adequate or mediocre. The whole purpose of cinema is to be entertaining and if it reaches for that and fails, well, that’s alright. There’s probably something positive to be found in there, far too many people get paid to collaborate and make a film for there to be no quality at all in the end product. But if a picture isn’t genre-changing or epochal it’s immediately called a dumpster-fire and dismissed out of hand and I just don’t understand that mentality, as if the privilege of watching a movie is a job some critics don’t want and wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy. Ready Player One has a lot of joy in it, which is special in a movie with this much CGI, and it was written by a guy who has a lot of love for pop culture and directed by the guy who created a big chunk of it. This is a weird, meta-creation, it’s kind of a dream-come-true wish fulfillment story that would be a little corny if it hadn’t actually happened for Ernest Cline. Well, it’s a little corny anyway, but it’s got heart, it looks amazing, and it’s a lot of fun but if it doesn’t do anything for you, that’s okay too, just save your hate for the films that deserve it. Like The Emoji Movie.