When “Alien vs Predator” came out in 2004, most critics (and audiences) dismissed it as cynical fluff, but not many people released what a watershed moment it was of the media feeding off itself. When games company Capcom introduced the “Alien vs Predator” arcade game in 1994 (based on a script for an “Alien vs Predator” movie that was never made), it imagined a world where the monsters from the two iconic sci-fi/horror franchises co-existed to do battle. It became so popular a film outing was virtually inevitable, so we then had a movie based on a video game based on two movies, the original iterations of which had no connection whatsoever.
In the same way, Ernest Cline was synthesising a generation of fanboy and fangirl love of a very particular era that relied on very particular technology when he wrote “Ready Player One”. The 1980s bought Generation X-ers entertainment that was far more interactive and visual than the electronic Pong game or TV cowboys and Indians their parents had enjoyed.
It’s not an overstatement to say Steven Spielberg was the vanguard of a lot of what 70s and 80s kids fell in love with, so the fact that he now directs the movie adaptation of Cline’s novel is an example of the same wry symmetry that gives us an “Alien vs Predator” movie or “Freddy vs Jason”, the 2003 movie that pitted 80s era slasher villains Jason Vorhees and Fred Krueger against one another. And yes, Fred Krueger appears in “Reader Player One”, along with murderous doll Chucky, the “Aliens” pulse rifle, King Kong, the Atari 2600, the Rubik’s Cube and the poster from “Back to the Future” asking the citizens of Hill Valley to re-elect Mayor Goldie Wilson (along with hundreds of others 80s artefacts).
In another example of symmetry it’s a movie about easter eggs that’s full of easter eggs, and whether someone at Warner Bros, Cline or Spielberg himself envisioned, it makes “Ready Player One” as marketable AF – most people over 30 who see it in theatres will probably watch it at least a handful more times to rack up the number of references and homages they spot. There’s seldom been a movie more tailor made the for Internet Movie Database trivia section.
There might be one slight mismatch – those who lived and loved this era are all in their 40s and 50s today, and conventional economic wisdom tells us that while they stay at home working 24/7 covering ever-expanding living costs it’s their teenage kids who go to the movies. Will “Ready Player One” connect with people who weren’t even thought of back then or will Spielberg’s name be enough to guarantee universal appeal? It’s hard to say – “Stranger Things” is said to be one of Netflix’s biggest hits of recent times, but since the company doesn’t release any numbers, we don’t know what age group propelled it to such popularity.
The first bit of good news to report (aside from the effortless sense of freewheeling fun – this is Spielberg, the master of visual thrills, doing what he did best back in the era depicted) is that the story is wonderfully told and much better structured than the book.
It still deals with Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teenager in 2040’s Ohio who lives in a slum comprised of caravans stacked on top of each other and who’s only escape – like much of the population – is a vast virtual online world called The Oasis.
He still wants to meet and get to know the mysterious and beautiful gamer Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) in real life, believing himself to be falling in love with her. He’s still good friends and digital comrades with Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Phillip Zhao) even though he’s never met them in the flesh.
And The Oasis is still up for grabs thanks to the dying wish of its creator, awkward programmer James Halliday (Mary Rylance). A social misfit and a brilliant programmer, Rylance plays Halliday as an insecure, Aspergers-like genius and gives him far more nuance than he had in the book (just one example of the film improving on it), and as Wade explains in the opening voiceover, the hero to millions has left a series of tests and easter eggs in the Oasis, the avatar clever and lucky enough to find them set to inherit the entire company including the Oasis itself.
As Parzival (Wade’s online identity), Art3mis and the gang race to find the clues hidden in any number of VR worlds, they’re pursued relentlessly by the minions, foot soldiers and moustache twirling CEO Nolan (Ben Mendelsohn) of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), which is determined to win the contest for the economic goldmine The Oasis represents – there’s a funny and prescient early scene of Nolan presenting a scheme to his board of the VR world littered with pop up ads.
Every time the kids plug in, they find themselves in as many lands and localities as the combined creativity of the online world can possibly imagine, all of them appearing as the characters, monsters or figures and with vehicles, weapons and accoutrements from entertainment and culture they love most. Art3mis’ ride is the Tron lightcycle, Wade’s is the DeLorean time machine from “Back to the Future”).
First glimpses of the trailer made “Ready Player One” seem like an easy job for Spielberg. It looked like he only had to direct a few live action scenes on a sound stage (there’s some stunt driving that would have been done by a second unit), sitting back and waiting for the VFX shots that comprise about 70 percent of the running time to come back from render farms for his approval.
But the director has said in interviews it was one of the most difficult movies of his career. Sheridan, Cooke and the rest of the cast act their avatars’ parts in motion capture, so the film avoids all the ugliness of the Uncany Valley, and even with the other-worldy elements like Parzival’s tattoos and Art3mis’ huge anime eyes their movements, shrugs, blinks, etc don’t jar you rudely out of the experience.
But while most of the attention will be on Spielberg’s command of action and the joyful hunt for easter eggs, we shouldn’t overlook the contribution made by Zak Penn (The Avengers, Atari: Game Over) , who co-wrote the script along with author Cline. He manages the delicate balance between keeping the story completely in the spirit of the novel’s intent and not being afraid to make significant changes, and he makes it look easy.
For one thing, the gang starts to come together in the real world a lot earlier than in the book. Where Cline seemed less interested in what was happening offline, seeming to consider it necessary just to up the stakes for the characters, the script gives Wade and the gang stuff to do in the real world that matters to the story. Several sequences invented for the movie (you’ll never look at the Overlook Hotel the same again) are more fun than anything from the book even while they somewhat paradoxically slot into Cline’s concept perfectly. Scenes are recast with different people, moved elsewhere in the structure, expanded or dropped altogether, and all the changes are positive.
Cline also seemed more interested in how rubbish the real world would one day be, how we’d invent our own escape from it and how that was fine, but his script with Penn wraps things up with more of a message about unplugging and engaging with the real world (maybe a nod to Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, terrified about how much time their kids spend staring at phones and iPads?).
If you’re an 80s movie and computer game geek there are characters and iconography from Akira, “Lord of the Rings”, Buckaroo Banzai, The Iron Giant, Duke Nukem and countless others to spot and enjoy. If you’re an 80s movie geek the nods are just as well thought out, from a weapon called ‘The Zemeckis Cube’ to the work of 80s uber-composer Alan Silvestri on the soundtrack. If you don’t know or care about 80s pop culture it’s still a highly kinetic sci-fi action movie and if you do, your first viewing might be the gateway drug to a wave of nostalgia and trivia spotting that will consume countless hours of your life in the near future.