Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 6, 2018

Critic's Corner: ‘Ready Player One’ disappointing, does disservice to book

In “Ready Player One,” director Steven Spielberg ushers viewers into the Oasis, a virtual world in which countless adventures await. This digital replacement for reality is so compelling that humanity spends most of its waking hours within it, living out three-dimensional fantasies while the world outside crumbles to dust.

Based on a popular novel by Ernest Cline, Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” does a couple of things very well. For starters, it looks great. I see a lot of movies, and the character animation in the film’s Oasis scenes is easily the best of any movie to date.

It’s taken nine years, but someone has finally topped the so-called photorealism of “Avatar.” The digitally-created characters in “Ready Player One” have remarkable clarity and expressiveness and move with jaw-dropping fluidity.

“Ready Player One” also moves with the urgency of Mario on a mission. Its pace is relentless and its energy infectious as it moves from one kinetically choreographed chase to the next.

Spielberg is one of the best when it comes to serving up fun, memorable action, and free of the confines of the physical world, he lets his imagination run wild. There are moments when being on that ride is a thrill.

Unfortunately, once the visceral thrills are over, the thrill is indeed gone. I’ve read that Spielberg loves Cline’s 2011 book. So do I. I’ve devoured it three times, most recently in preparation for the seeing the movie. I shouldn’t have bothered, though. What wound up on the screen is a pale shadow of the story Cline brought to life in the actual Oasis – the imaginations of his readers.

Yes, I’m going to complain that the book was better than the movie.

Way better, actually. Set in 2045, “Ready Player One” follows a disadvantaged and disillusioned young man named Wade Watts, who sets out to find an Easter egg hidden within the Oasis by its creator, the late James Halliday. The person who finds the egg will inherit a fortune and win control of the Oasis.

Although Cline’s prose is hardly the stuff of great literature, he crafted a gripping story of high adventure populated with beautifully drawn heroes and villains and compelling social commentary. The Oasis wasn’t just a cool video game, it was an escape hatch, a place to which mankind apathetically retreated to die as the world it had built finally buckled at the knees from a lack of resources.

Each time I read the book, the movie I imagined it could be played out in my head. So, as I watched the film Spielberg made, I was thrown off by how vastly different it is from the novel. “Different” is not a synonym for “bad,” but I had trouble swallowing many of the changes.

Gone is the context the book’s dystopic backdrop provides. Instead of living in a dying world, it seems like Wade simply lives in a bad neighborhood. Worse, characters that are introduced over time as the novel’s story organically develops are just there in the beginning and lack the substance they have on the printed page. And key events were either removed or rearranged to serve a story that flowed better with the action but has none of the emotional punch of the source material.

I know a two-hour movie can’t replicate a book that takes nine hours to read. Shortcuts must be taken. Things have to be left out. But when it came to “Ready Player One,” Spielberg put Cline’s novel in a Cuisinart and hit the puree button. When he poured out the resulting sludge, many of the things that made the novel worth reading – and a movie worth seeing – were gone.

In the book, Wade’s quest for the egg is actually a journey to find himself and a purpose in life. In the movie, it’s just a quest to find the egg and keep it out of the hands of an evil corporation that plans to fill the Oasis with ads. (Insert maniacal laughter here.)

A key romantic relationship between Wade and a young woman is also drastically altered and drained of its emotional heft. Spielberg is in such a hurry to get back to the action that he rushes a key moment between these characters (when Wade tells her he loves her) and in the process, produces one of the most awkward, record-scratching moments I’ve seen in a movie in a long time.

To be fair, not all of the changes were fatal. Many of the challenges Wade must overcome in the book involve him beating a classic video game or performing as a character in a 3D recreation of one of Halliday’s favorite movies.

These bits worked in the novel but would have been a bore to watch on a screen. Instead, Cline and Zak Penn, who co-wrote the screenplay, created all-new, action-oriented challenges, such as a dizzying race through a brutally difficult and dangerous course. They also replaced the movie reenactments with an admittedly hilarious tribute to Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King. (Do the math.)

All of this works in a way, but the characters aren’t as clever or deep as they are in the book and the story isn’t as emotionally satisfying. Spielberg has essentially created a gorgeous, fast-moving cinematic confection that will complement a bucket of popcorn and an Icee just fine and provide about as much nourishment.

Rated PG-13 for violence, bloody images, suggestive material, partial nudity and language