"Ready Player One" is director Steven Spielberg's highly anticipated adaptation of author Ernest Cline's 2011 novel of the same name. If you have spent any amount of time on the internet recently, you have likely seen people either anxiously awaiting the film's release or preemptively deriding it. After months of strong opinions from fans and detractors, the film has finally arrived and the results are disappointingly tepid.
The film follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a bland teenage composite of Dylan Minette and Miles Teller, who lives in the dystopian future of 2045. The only escape from the daily drudgery of the future is a virtual reality world called the OASIS, a massive online video game where players can live out their wildest fantasies (which are apparently limited to video games and movies from the 1980s and 90s). Watts roams the virtual world from the comfort of an abandoned cargo van, nestled in a "District 9"-style shantytown in Columbus, Ohio. His virtual counterpart, a vaguely elven avatar named Parzival, is one of thousands of players involved in an elaborate Easter egg hunt set forth by OASIS's creator, James Halliday, upon his death five years prior. The rules of the hunt are simple: the first player to find three keys hidden within the OASIS will gain control of the program and serve as Halliday's successor. In the ensuing years since Halliday's death, no one has been able to find the first key. Watts stumbles across a clue that leads him to the first key, and suddenly the race is on as everyone in the OASIS is out to complete the hunt and win the prize. I.O.I., one of those pesky faceless corporations that always seem to be causing trouble in movies, is also out to win the competition, but only so that it can monetize the otherwise free-to-play world of OASIS.
The film unfolds in a humdrum fashion from here. Watts falls in love with an equally bland player named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who teams up with him and his team of friends (I won't bother to name them all because the movie doesn't care enough to give them personalities, only actions to complete in service of the plot) to complete the hunt before the corporate baddies. Art3mis doesn't want to meet Watts in real life, but of course they eventually do, and of course they still fall in love in real life anyways. Eventually I.O.I. manages to get information on Watts' shantytown whereabouts, which forces him to go on the lam with his real-life teammates, attempting to complete the hunt while fleeing in a modified postal truck. Everything culminates in a big battle outside the third challenge of the hunt, which I.O.I has conveniently blocked off with a magic force field. As is to be expected, Watts rallies the legions of OASIS users to fight for the fate of their beloved virtual reality world. Many heroic words are said, but none of them are particularly memorable. And what would a modern blockbuster film be without a giant CGI army battle? Pop culture characters abound as the Iron Giant and a Gundam robot duke it out with Mechagodzilla, and armies of video game and movie characters flash up onscreen. Good bests evil as is expected, and Watts is treated to a one-on-one meeting with a simulation of Halliday, who signs over the OASIS and suggests that real life should not be ignored in favor of escapism. A strange moral with which to end the film, given that the sequences set in the OASIS are far more interesting than anything taking place in the real world.
I am not a fan of Cline's novel, so I went into the film expecting to hate it. Much to my surprise, the big screen adaptation of "Ready Player One" was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. It pares down the constant, clunky pop culture references of the novel and greatly reduces Watts' creepy behavior. The movie also replaces the hunt challenges of the novel with ones that are more visually interesting, it is better for it. By far the most engaging sequences in the film are the first and second challenges of the hunt. I particularly enjoyed the second challenge, which is set in a recreation of the film "The Shining". The visual effects used to generate replicas of the Overlook Hotel sets are quite impressive, and the sequence moves along at an exciting clip. As is the case the with the book, the portions of "Ready Player One" set in the real world are just not as interesting as the scenes set in the OASIS. The virtual world, while clogged with pop culture references, is far more visually interesting than the drab dystopia of Columbus, Ohio. None of the characters are particularly memorable, either, although this could be seen as an improvement. In removing most of Watts' pathetic creepiness towards Art3mis in the adaptation process, the movie erases the only defining trait of his character. The cinematic adaptation of "Ready Player One" is in many respects better than the book, but it still falls short as a film.