With Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg Turns a Bad Book into a Decent Movie

Ready Player One

Full disclosure: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is the worst book I’ve read cover-to-cover. It’s plagued by poor prose – the man may know the intricacies of the Atari 2600’s back catalogue, but he can’t construct an engaging paragraph to save himself – and defined by the kind of hermetic pop-culture worship that’s erupted in merciless (and entirely justified) mocking of the book prior to its release. Cline imagines a world where being an expert in ephemeral pop culture is socially valued as much as – or moreso – than good looks, social skills or sporting ability and it’s hard to see the resultant story as anything more than a masturbatory fantasy.

Of course, there’s nothing that stops a bad book making a good movie. The Godfather is, I’m told, the canonical example, though I’m never read Puzo’s books. Ready Player One is structured much like the old-fashioned ‘80s action-adventure movies Cline’s so enamoured of, and many of its worst impulses – the feverish descriptions of pop-culture incorporated into unfamiliar settings, for instance – can be mitigated by a cinematic approach where a paragraph of text is rendered as a glancing frame on screen.

To his credit, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the book – penned by Zak Penn and Cline himself – makes the kind of smart choices that needed to be made. Outside of a mid-film detour into an ‘80s film (though not quite the War Games recreation seen in the novel), Spielberg tempers the story’s obsession with pop culture. Instead, he emphasises action and adventure; the first challenge to find ‘the key’ – which has the potential to grant the owner immense economic power in this pseudo-dystopic digital future – becomes a race rather than a puzzle, for instance.

This adaptation also adds necessary perspective. Cline’s novel was about little more than a chosen one winning the day; Spielberg’s film adds nuance through the backstory of the late trillionaire Halliday (Mark Rylance, remarkably convincing as an antisocial geek), making the central quest less about unpicking Halliday’s pop culture obsessions and more about reflecting about his regrets. I’ve seen a few people ping this as anti-internet stance from a boomer (Spielberg) who doesn’t “get it”, but as much as I love the internet, it’s hard to ignore its deleterious effects, particularly in a world where its overtaken reality as the preferred mode of social interaction.

I do wish the film had gone further. There was a great opportunity to, in recreating the form of ‘80s blockbusters, critique their inherent materialism. But no, here’s another movie that revels in things and coins; yes, it recognises the pernicious influence of mega-corporations that subsumes the state, but it fails to acknowledge our complicity in allowing that to happen. Equally, there are missed chances to offer contemporary criticisms of technology. For instance, protagonist Wade (Tye Sheridan) purchases a ‘haptic suit’ from the evil IOI corporation; wouldn’t it have been perfect for them to locate him via backdoor tracking software in said suit, à la Facebook’s exploitation of its consumer data?

Beyond this, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the flatness of Ready Player One. Both Rylance and Mendelsohn (as, you guessed it, the villain of the piece) deliver distinctive performances, but there’s sadly nothing especially memorable about Wade, nor his compatriots. I generally love Olivia Cooke – who plays Art3mis/Samantha, Wade’s love interest – but she’s kind of wasted here. Visually, too, the film is fine but somehow lacking. For decades, Spielberg has been the driving force behind American blockbuster style; here, for once, he feels beholden to the special effects studios. His camera weaves and loops through unreal worlds with the familiar rhythms of pretty well every other big effects movie made this century.

Spielberg has made a good movie out of a bad book. Shame he couldn’t have made a great one.

3 stars

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