Question: What do you do when tasked with making a movie adapted from a book that some consider as both the Holy Grail of 70’s and 80’s Pop Culture, and is impossible to faithfully make? Answer: You don’t. Instead make an almost completely different movie, but slap the beloved title on it and hope that no one will tell the difference!
When we here at TG2Studios first talked about the pop-culture sci-fi novel Ready Player One we had posed the question to our listeners: Do we read the book first or wait until the film comes out and then read the book? Two of our webcast listeners most enthusiastically said we needed to first read the book, to which we did, and as was reviewed just over two years ago this was a book that both Keith and I absolutely loved, as we are both in our late 50s so we could very easily relate and enjoy all of the geeky fun references that fill this amazing book. However, that once again begs the question, what would have happened had we not read the book and seen the movie first?
The movie’s opening is pretty much identical to what we see in the book, but only after mere minutes does it immediately veer away from the source material. The nature of the OASIS and the game left by its creator, James Halliday, suddenly bear no resemblance to what the book’s narrator, Wade Watts (whose OASIS avatar is named Parzival), describes from his First Person point of view. Instead we are suddenly thrust into the first contest to obtain the all important keys needed to win “The Egg,” which will award the winner all of Halliday’s financial estate as well as 100% control of the OASIS. Right along with this new opening contest we are also immediately introduced to all of the players who would end up becoming part of Wade’s clan, which would be his best friend Aech, Art3mis, Daito, and Sho. Unfortunately for all concerned, this first contest is something that no one has ever won, so Wade refers to the library of all things Halliday (also never depicted in the source material) and digs up one of the most obscure clues to help him win the first contest and obtain the Copper Key. Not long after both Art3mis and Aech also win their own copies of the Copper Key, and that is when they find themselves on the radar of a diabolical corporation called IOI (as in Eye-Oh-Eye) and the man who runs it, Nolan Sorrento (perfectly played by Ben Mendelsohn).
When I learned that Steven Spielberg was set to direct this movie my initial thought was that he would be the perfect man to helm such a project of this scale. After all, his own catalog of movies helped to define the 80’s cinema probably more than any other American filmmaker, and with movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. it seemed clear that only he had the vision to capture and distill all of the wonderful pop-culture references from Cline’s book and translate them to the big screen. But the novel is more than just the pop references, as it’s also a study of the human condition on so many fronts, most relevant being how people can so easily hide behind avatars and false identities on all of the various social media platforms. With Read Player One we are shown how terrible life is for people on Earth, which makes the OASIS the perfect escape. It truly does serve as an oasis amongst the terrible living conditions mankind is forced to endure. If there was such an escape, an oasis where people could run away and forget how truly sad their real lives have become, wouldn’t it be easier to seek that escape than to try to solve those problems instead? That aspect of the original story is still there, and yet the film does not show the real world to be quite as dystopian as the book does, and the movie does allow for many scenes to be shown in the real world, something we see very little of in the book itself. However it is in the characters that the real meat of the story comes out, for they are intended to be the reflection of those same problems that society is facing. In the book we see people go to school, go to work, and even vacation in the OASIS. They LIVE in the OASIS, and through our characters, first Parzival and Aech, and then later Art3mis, they not only serve as our primary players but they are also the Greek Chorus, telling the reader everything that is wrong with the world and thereby further illustrating the seductive and addictive nature of the OASIS. The book shows us who these characters are in their very marrow and everything that motivates them. With the film, much of that is watered down, and in some cases, simply removed from the story. There are also many gags, tests, and challenges in the OASIS that have a lot of symbolism in the book, but those are also removed. Be it through licensing issues, or time constraints, virtually all of those pop-culture references that make up those challenges are simply cut out, and instead what we get are new contests and sequences that at best border on sensory overload, and at worst had both myself and Keith saying, “Where did they come up with this???”
This movie is not a complete loss though as the cast isn’t actually bad. As said earlier, Ben Mendelsohn is really beginning to make a name for himself in big budget movies, recently as Orson Krennic in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, as well as in the upcoming Marvel Studios film Captain Marvel. Sorrento as a character is a bit two-dimensional in the book, but here in the movie Mendelsohn breathes life into him and making more than a believable top-level company executive who would do anything to hold on to his power. Because of what he brings to the role, a certain action sequence that was added to the movie (and never appeared in the book) was actually somewhat tolerable because of the motivations that Mendelsohn gave Sorrento. It was one of the times where, despite recognizing the fact that this specific sequence was new to the story, it never fully took me out because of what Mendelsohn brought to those scenes.
Our heroes are, for the most part, competently cast in their respective parts. Tye Sheridan as Wade does come off as an average guy taking part in Halliday’s game, even if he does seem a bit older than someone who just graduated from high school. Sheridan does make Wade seem rather unremarkable, which should make his OASIS alter ego Parzival even more of a celebrity. However that isn’t the case. This is no fault of Sheridan’s as all of the characters in the OASIS are CGI. As Parzival, he simply comes across as a video game character, but as Wade he finds a way to underplay the part making the character refreshingly normal and very relatable to the audience.
On the other hand, Olivia Cooke’s portrayal of Art3mis is almost everything that the book initially describes her as being. She is supposed to be something of a cult figure among the “gunters” who are playing Halliday’s game. While her avatar doesn’t entirely look human, she is still given an exotic quality that definitely sets her apart and gives validation to her “rock star status” in the OASIS.
Then there is probably the biggest waste of all, and that is Lena Waithe as Aech. In the book Wade doesn’t meet his real life friends face to face until they are gearing up for a final showdown against Sorrento and his IOI fighting force (known as Sixers), but here we meet them a quite a bit earlier, which de-mystifies all of them far too soon, and Waithe’s reveal is one of the saddest. Waithe is an amazing talent in so many different capacities, and yet we see so little of her once we meet her as Helen in the real world. Also as Aech, there is virtually nothing human about her. While the premise of the OASIS in this film does say that anyone can have an avatar that presents him or her as anything, Aech is nothing like what we read about in the book, and in doing so takes away from the pain that Helen has in the real world. Here in the film it is completely removed, making her real world character somewhat unimportant in comparison to what she does inside of the OASIS.
Lastly, there are the characters of Halliday and Ogden Morrow, who are supposed to be the Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs of this film. Mark Rylance makes Halliday out to be more than just the computer genius that we get in the book. Here he is one of those insane geniuses that appears to be cursed with a bad case of Asperger Syndrome. On the other hand we have everyone’s favorite geek actor Simon Pegg as Ogden Morrow, who is also woefully written for this film. While the character does get a fair amount of screen time, almost all of it is told in some type of flashback or archived material. In the book we see him with his avatar alter ego as The Great and Powerful Og, a character with almost limitless power within the OASIS, which also helps to give him enormous development when he is revealed, but here his use is almost trivial, and for an actor of Pegg’s caliber, this too makes for a wasted effort.
There are scenes that made me smile, and even a few gags that made me laugh, but the heart of this book is completely lost, and instead what we have is a movie that is Ready Player One in name only, but bears little to no resemblance to the story that I so deeply love. Instead of cheering a movie that can thrill me with some of its action, as well as allow me to remember my youth with such wonderful pop-culture references, I was watching a movie that simply had me saying to myself, “Game Over Man!!!”
I give Ready Player One 2 out of 5 Joysticks.
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