Out of all the books I’ve read in the past 10 years, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One might be the one I had the worst time reading. I mean that in all seriousness. Cline’s clunky prose, off-putting plot, thin characters and the references — oh GOD the references — broke me in half. It’s the kind of book where each member of the ensemble has a moment where they “chortle in recognition” at the most pathetic and base references to so-called “nerd” culture. At the heart of it was a somewhat compelling plot line: A master inventor, creator of a virtual reality world called the Oasis passes away well before his time, and to the dispossessed and frustrated of his damaged future, all of whom are enamored with his product, he leaves the promise of a life-changing fortune and control of the Oasis, provided that they can solve These Riddles Three and complete labors that Hercules himself would have shrugged at before failing miserably because he didn’t know how to use an Atari Controller.
It was, from the start, always intended by Cline to be a film, and only became a novel when he failed to sell the script. This proved to be a genius move on his part, as the book became hyper-successful right around the time adults began taking the geeks among them seriously as arbiters of popcorn-fueled taste, and ultimately attracted the eye of Steven Spielberg.
I, like many, wasn’t excited that the man behind so much of Cline’s nostalgia wank material would stoop to this bait-filled level, and the marketing campaign only served to aggrieve further. I would be lying to you if I said that I was happy to be attending Sunday night’s buzz-fueled screening of Spielberg’s film at SXSW, especially given that it was up against the apparently-incredible Hereditary, a horror film with the same kind of breathless hype that surrounded The Witch and other incredible modern classics. I was going to wind up kicking myself for going to it.
Two-and-half hours later, I walked out on to Congress Street with a big ol’ dumb grin on my face.
Ready Player One is good, and it is so for plenty of other reasons besides the fact that you’re able to see things you recognize from other pieces of media mushed together on canvas made of hundreds of millions of dollars. Sure, I know it’s a big surprise that Steven Spielberg made a good movie (not like he hasn’t ever done that before!), but given all that was mounted against the project, from Film Twitter aggravation to Cline’s utterly infuriating source material to some potentially dubious casting (and yes, I believe that TJ Miller should have been Christopher Plummer’d out of this film, too), to have it come out in such a rousing fashion makes it only a few rungs below the decision to hide Jaws form the audience on the Stevie’ll Fix It steps.
Cline’s basic plot is initially in place: Three Riddles, et cetera, and Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a poor young man living in an American favela (built out of stacked trailers, obviously) outside of Columbus, Ohio, has hopes of claiming the prize for himself. His obsessive tendencies with regards to the life of that Jobsian inventor, James Halliday (played by the always-lovely Mark Rylance), come across as slightly less annoying than in the book, where his preparation and knowledge always felt like he was trying to out-beard the comic book guy at his local shop with the heavy gut and bad hygiene. Here, it’s more like he’s trying to play Jeopardy more so than anything else, and doesn’t seem to idolize the guy in the same way. That money means that Wade and what remains from his family can get out of the Stacks and live in comfort, so he continues on with his quest. Even though he’s taken the name Parzival (after the solitary knight of Arthurian legend), he’s still got friends, including his best bud, the master mechanic Aech (Lena Waithe), of who the only detail he knows about them is the first lefter of their first name. They’re trying to get the first of three keys and get past the first challenge, which sees them competing in a race across a twisting and turning Manhattan, which no one has solved in all of the years between Halliday’s passing and when we meet Wade.
Also gunning for the keys is the evil corporation IOI, headed up by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), a former intern of Halliday’s who rose up in the world of “Gunters,” or Egg-Hunters through ruthless means. He controls what amounts to a virtual army, acts with impunity in that world and the real one, and wishes to transform the Oasis into an ad-strewn hellhole with tiered monthly membership programs. He’s basically a more forthright and less smug Ajit Pai — they’re both kind of dumb and cruel, and I have no doubt that Pai is the kind of fellow who’d leave his computer password on a sticky note stuck to his desktop for all to see — and Mendelsohn soaks up every second of his screen-time. Also on the hunt is Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a master gamer who has become famous for her exploits within the game world. She’s got a history with IOI and a grudge against them (both absent from the novel), and is given significantly more to do than to chortle at Wade’s jokes and be the wench around his Conan’s knee. Together, Wade and his friends must solve the riddles before Sorrento takes over the Oasis and potentially murders all of them — and to do so, they’ll have to dig through Halliday’s past and learn lessons that he failed to in his actual life.
There’s obviously enough here thematically to chew on, and Spielberg is able to hone in on the things that make the online experience so damn special to people. The film’s final battle is essentially what one sees in their head when participating in a World of Warcraft raid or even a Dungeons and Dragons session, and it’s captured with the same sort of breathless excitement. Likewise, his incorporation of things like the Delorian from Back to the Future (which is currently available for purchase in the store for the massively popular Rocket League, so you can feel like Marty McFly when you score the big goal) and even the avatar choices of many of the background characters — Tracer from Overwatch, members of the Bat-Family, and plenty of others — reflects the online experience, where people use cover of their favorite media as an easy and quick expression of personal identity.
Likewise, the film works best when it’s read as a parable about the necessity of an open and free internet, which Cline sort of forgot to include in his novel, and it feels incredibly relevant in a time in which that’s threatened. But beyond all of that lies Rylance’s Halliday, who, even in death, is silly and enigmatic to conceal a sadness and loneliness that no amount of video games or cinema could film. It’s ultimate messages — that life is best lived in the company of friends and in the real world, while augmented by art and entertainment — are appealing and counteract the toxicity of insular fandom culture in a necessary way.
One must give a ton of credit to co-writer Zak Penn (whose Incident at Loch Ness remains essential viewing for fans of Werner Herzog’s screen presence), who buffed out many of the dents in Cline’s novel. The dialogue is often funny, the set-pieces are rearranged in an intensely cinematic way, and the entire third act and conclusion have been altered to remove all the filler and to ratchet up the stakes in a way that Cline never really had the awareness to cultivate. The occasional cringe-worthy moment pops up — I can think of several right off the bat, including a moment in the second challenge that caused a woman behind me to let out one hell of a groan — but these moments land more often than they don’t.
And as for the references, they’re simply cute color and have very little to do with the plot or visuals at large: It’s not important if you know that it’s the car from Christine at one point in the race or what a Gundam is; frankly they could be the writers’ invention if you weren’t already aware of them. The few extended moments — like the deployment of a “Zemeckis Cube,” which rewinds 60 seconds in the past and is used by Wade during an early conflict — played well in my theater, and they’re not used in a cloying and pedantic way. One set-piece involving a perennial horror favorite will piss tons of people off, but remembering that that filmmaker and Spielberg were friends (even to the point that the latter made a movie — a masterpiece, at that — out of one of the former’s abandoned ideas) will salve the chapped asses of those chafed.
Still, the visuals are what makes this film sing.
It’s got Spielberg’s best action filmmaking since that chase through Morocco in 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin, but it’s more restrained and disciplined here, offering the same thrills only blown up to the grand scale of an IMAX screen. That first race for the first key is a cacophony of utter chaos, offering kinetic action and the kind of creativity that the text failed to give its readers. It’s an exciting thrill-ride with surprises around each and every corner, and you can feel the joy of a man in his own element and at the height of his powers radiating off the screen. The Oasis itself is also captured in a plausible way, though the character designs are ultimately a bit disappointing (Wade finds out he can look like anything in the entirety of pop culture and his own imagination, and like James Cameron, he wants to be a blue elf), and, as Eric Kohn of Indiewire pointed out, for those who enjoyed the balls-out spectacle of Luc Besson’s Valerian last year, Spielberg manages to top him in every way. The real world is lensed spectacularly by the director’s longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski, and you feel the grime of Columbus and your eyes burn a bit at the painful fluorescents that blanket IOI’s headquarters in an ugly ultraviolet light.
The entire third act will most likely get a huge pop with any theater audience that has a pulse (I mean, the big climax literally caused the damn sound to go out in the Paramount Theatre in Austin), as Spielberg manages to get as close to Christopher Nolan and his cross-cutting between worlds as any other director has. It’s enhanced by Alan Silvestri’s gorgeous score, which evokes so much without ever falling into cliche, and our audience was literally screaming by the time the credits rolled. It’s the biggest reaction I’ve seen at SXSW since Baby Driver, and even A Quiet Place was a mostly polished and contained affair by the audience as far as I was concerned.
Ready Player One is invigorating populist cinema, where a small number of the downtrodden lead a revolution to prevent corporate control of what they love, constructed by one of Hollywood’s greatest as a love letter to his metaphorical children. It’s a damn fine time at the movies.
‘Ready Player One’ hits theaters March 29. Follow Nick Johnston on his adventures at SXSW 2018 @onlysaysficus. Featured photo credit: Jaap Buttendijk, via Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved.