It was a bright Saturday afternoon two years ago when I first became acquainted with Ready Player One. I had just finished eating some fishballs in chili sauce and was wandering around a library in the western part of Singapore, as is my habit due to a chronic case of Being A Nerd. I plucked this book called Ready Player One off the display shelf and sat down to read it. Before I knew it, I looked up and the library was closing. This book had me totally hooked.
Like the best sci-fi, Ready Player One is propulsively plotted with a pretty addictive premise - a massive treasure hunt in a simulated VR universe loaded up with nostalgia-baiting references, featuring the plucky forces of nerdom racing against the oppressive forces of corporate America to save the world. The characters and themes are thinly drawn but this is generally an acceptable trade-off with sci-fi. If done well, the world-building and plot will pull you along, compelling you to turn the page, even if the characters and the reedy message about not losing yourself in a fantasy world are kind of lame.
The book was a massive success, although hoity-toity literati types have criticized it for basically just being a grab-bag of 1980s pop culture references masquerading as a novel. When Steven Spielberg signed on to direct the big screen adaption there was a lot of excitement. The iconic director is referenced often in the novel, so for him to helm the film seemed appropriate. Add to that the fact that this kind of special effects driven high-fantasy is Spielberg's bread and butter, and that trafficking in the symbols and language of the pop culture wonder factory he helped create was such a natural fit. This was something to genuinely look forward to.
I loved the film. It's not quite Jurassic Park, but it is a hell of a lot of fun. Most of the movie is pure CGI spectacle, but staged cleanly for once. It's not just an orgy of sound and fury and color and noise. Directors often think that the louder and brighter CGI sequences are, the better they will be - but what ends up happening is the CGI just washes over you when it's dumped in your lap in a messy pile. By contrast, the action sequences in Ready Player One are clear, coherent and dare I say even beautiful. This novel was particularly ripe for the big screen treatment, as the litany of video game and nerd references are easily translated to the screen in simple and efficient images that are nevertheless packed with meaning for sharp-eyed virgins.
Sure, it's a wall-to-wall celebration of loud, energetic noise - but that noise is the business. The movie deviates from the novel in ways that make sense while embracing the conceit that an encyclopedic knowledge of nerd culture is what separates the Good Guys from the Bad Guys. Some have suggested that this is kind of, you know, not the healthiest message but I think if you are spending any significant amount of time drilling down into the deeper meaning of this film then you are really wasting your time. It is a sensory delight, designed to pull you into its world and knock your socks off. If you looking for greater depths than that, you have misunderstood this movie. I am a believer that films should be judged based on what their ambitions are. This film aspires to be a celebration of nerd culture that punches you in the face with a vibrant fantasy world. By those standards, it is wildly successful.
Spielberg has taken some flack lately for his films. The BFG was disappointing, and his Very Serious Movies have been hit or miss. Perhaps that is because his true passion has always been with the kind of colossal fantasy adventures that pander to your inner ten-year-old, in which case this was the perfect film for him to get his mojo back. The fact that Spielberg was even capable of juggling directing duties on films that are so fundamentally different as The Post and Ready Player One - at the same time, no less - just confirms what we already knew: the man is a singular genius, and a Nerd God.
Sure, the ending is a bit of a deflated balloon, and the logic of having Professional Old Man Mark Rylance play a blitzed out 20-year-old computer genius was.... questionable. I also think it's absolutely hilarious that Hollywood's idea of a nerd is Tye Sheridan wearing glasses. But nothing is perfect. This movie succeeds at what it sets out to do. It turns a cacophony of noise into a visually stunning and propulsive adventure, and it sucks you into its world and dumps Easter eggs on you in a way that will make it feel like all those hours of playing Warcraft in your underwear have finally paid off.
If you used to rush through Final Fantasy's gameplay because you couldn't wait to make it to the next cut scene, this movie is one hundred percent up your alley.