Dissecting 'Ready Player One' and Its Biggest Problem

Eisner-nominated comic book writer Alex de Campi and THR contributor Simon Abrams take a look at the highs and lows of Steven Spielberg's adaptation.
Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.
'Ready Player One'

[This story contains spoilers for Warner Bros.' Ready Player One.]

The following is the second monthly installment in a series of conversations between noted comics writer Alex de Campi (No Mercy, May Day) and agreeable Hollywood Reporter contributor Simon Abrams. This month's conversation concerns Ready Player One, director Steven Spielberg's new adaptation of Ernest Cline's hyper-popular science-fiction novel. 

Like Cline's source material, Spielberg's movie follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teenager who likes to escape from his futuristic, economically depressed reality into the OASIS, a virtual reality world that's like the Matrix, only with more 1980s nostalgia. After James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the socially awkward creator of the OASIS, dies, Watts bands together with a group of fellow misfit video-game players — role call: Art3mis (Olivia Cooke)! Aech (Lena Waithe)! Sho (Philip Zhao)! And Daito (Win Morisaki)! — to save the OASIS from being overtaken by evil corporate overlord Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).

This month's conversation did not go as planned. It was supposed to be a straightforward series of six 500-word exchanges, three apiece. But the writers' feelings about Spielberg got the better of them. And this conversation became more like de Campi and Abrams' real-life post-screening bar-side arguments. So, without further throat-clearing: Let's get ready to rumble!

Alex de Campi, Valley Forge: Welcome back to this month’s edition of Simon and Alex Watch Controversial Blockbusters So You Don’t Have To. Last time, we threw oil onto the faux-feminist dumpster fire that was 50 Shades Freed. This month, we stand poised over our joysticks for Ready Player One. Remember: Simon is the actual film journalist who knows things, and does his research and stuff. And I’m the goon he brings along as “control." (Please imagine William Shatner singing “Common People” as I type this.) 

I have to admit, I was nervous going into this movie. It’s gotten a lot of social media pre-hate, from people who don’t like the book at all, and not helped along by some awkward marketing and poster design decisions. And full disclosure: As with 50 Shades Freed, I haven’t read the book. I have limited time on this earth and I don’t intend to spend it reading things I’m fairly sure I won’t like. 

But this film? It was a lot of fun. The pop-culture overload that must be as momentum-killing as Homer’s Catalogue of Ships in Ernest Cline’s book is far less overwhelming when it’s all visual. It just doesn’t matter, she says, totally hiding the fact she squealed like a little girl when there’s a glimpse of the ship from Silent Running

Spielberg has made a film where all the pop-culture window-dressing is ultimately irrelevant to the actual story. If you don’t recognize a damn thing, it still all hangs together. I even got weepy during the hero’s Big Third-Act Speech. (This is possibly not as great a recommendation as it seems, considering that I have also gotten weepy during the trailers for Christian motivational films.) 

The cast all acquit themselves admirably, but ultimately it’s Mark Rylance’s film, and he walks off with it from his first line right through the end. I have quibbles, certainly, and I want to talk later about the differing effectiveness of Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s live-action work vs. their CGI work. But I had a great time watching it. 

Simon, you hated it, yes? Do you think you might have liked it more if you hadn’t read the book? 

Simon Abrams, Giant Floating Zardoz Head: Before I start: Shatner's cover of "Common People" is pretty great. See? I like one thing in this article. One, one thing!

Now, to begin: Yes, I hated Cline's book, despite wanting to to love it. Wade Watts is, on the page, extremely annoying. And the quests that he has to complete in the OASIS are pretty dull. Many times, when he steps up to a challenge: The gauntlet is briefly described, then he does the thing, and then poof, it's over. Wow, thanks, Ernest Cline, I really loved hearing about how your guy beat a giant D&D-style Lich King at Joust, or deciphered lyrics from Rush's 2112, or re-enacted all of WarGames scene-for-scene. That's not only exciting to read about — it tells me so much about your character and his world!

Feh. Watts is so smug and uncritically enamored with pop-culture trivia — from several generations before the character's time — that I never bought Cline's gentle mocking of Watts' adolescent perspective. Cline especially likes to make fun of Watts whenever he — as "Parzival," his thinner, faster virtual avatar — stumbles into Art3mis, an attractive, flirtatious and mysterious OASIS avatar who, like Watts, seeks Halliday's Easter Egg. But Watts' relationship with Art3mis is often more than just kittenishly awkward. She is presented to him as a reward at the end of the book: She waits with hands folded in the middle of a labyrinth that looks like a map in the Atari 2600 game Adventure. And how about the way he disregards her wishes when she asks him to back off after he says "I love you" because, at the time, they have yet to meet in real life? Cline dismisses Art3mis' understandable need for space by making it seem like the only thing holding Watts back from his girl-shaped prize is her insecurity about her real-life looks (she has a wine stain bruise covering half of her face in the book). It's OK, pretty lady, I'll win you over by reassuring you that I still think you're pretty! 

Unfortunately, a lot of this soul-less fanboy pandering is present in the film adaptation, which Cline co-adapted with Zak Penn. There are some major improvements in this adaptation, as I'll get into in my second salvo (OK, I admit it: I liked more than one thing). But, as I told you shortly after I flipped off the film for its awful Terminator 2: Judgment Day reference: There's a lot of fun window-dressing in this film surrounding the gaping hole where its heart should be. 

For starters: Sure, there's a lot less exposition in the film, but there's still way too much left over. Just reams and reams of dialogue and blocky "world-building" conversations that eventually made me want to scream. That's why I yelled back at the film when a red-haired female gunter (or, "Easter egg hunter," ugh) and Watts both laboriously explain why Halliday loves Adventure so much. This scene isn't just annoying for the ways it diverges from the novel, but also because it suggests that the filmmakers are still as awkward around girls as both Watts and Cline originally were. After all, in an earlier scene, this lady gunter looks like she knows exactly why Halliday liked Adventure, even if an oafish colleague does interrupt her before she can say her piece. But when she does speak up in a later scene, it's as if she's just had a breakthrough — at the same exact time as Watts. Because heaven forbid that this anonymous woman be smarter than our hero!

Watts and his relationship with Samantha (Art3mis) is also improved, but still basically insufferable. The wine stain on her face is tellingly insubstantial, reminding me of Terry Gilliam's complaint about E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial: How could such a cuddly lil' alien teach real kids that monsters can be human, too? The lesson comes pre-learned: See, she really is as gorgeous as Watts thinks. Advantage: Schlubby milquetoast white guy (he's at least a little overweight in the novel). 

And don't get me started on the way that she selflessly tells Watts that he "deserves" to win the contest more than her or their friends. Or how about the way that every other interaction seems to insulate Watts from questioning why he should obsess over Halliday's childhood as if it were his own? All of these aggravating but hardly world-ending shortcomings drive me nuts, especially the fact that Art3mis' love is still basically Watts' reward at film's end. She is the "real world" that the Halliday-shaped OASIS program encourages Watts to find at film's end. Without her validation, he is less real. How romantic.

I also wasn't as enamored with the film's set pieces, which were pretty, and adequately filmed and choreographed. But man, so are the action scenes in Robert Zemeckis' recent films! He's conspicuously name-dropped twice, specifically: an OASIS artifact called "Zemeckis' Cube" and Back to the Future's DeLorean car. But I also thought about Zemeckis' good-but-not-great recent films, like The Walk and Allied, two films that prove Zemeckis, as my friend Matt Zoller Seitz once put it, doesn't know his strengths as a storyteller. These movies are wonderful when they're all about set pieces, and world-building (shudder, that word). But they inevitably collapse whenever you have to care about what happens to the characters.

I hesitate to say this, but I didn't see Spielberg's usual heart, gift for character-driven details or focused vision in Ready Player One. Instead, I saw Steve Buscemi dressed up like a high-schooler with a backwards cap on, saying, "How do you do, fellow kids?" This movie is so embarrassing that it made me angry at inaptly deployed references to Mecha-Godzilla and Groucho Marx, as if I was a teenager who can't stand seeing somebody cooler than him touching his stuff. This movie gave me zits without any good reason, and I hate that!

I'm too mad to set up the next round! You've got this, he typed huffily!

De Campi: Look, I’m not saying that Ready Player One is a movie that will rearrange aspects of the world for its viewers. Heck, I’d be surprised if any of it remained in its viewers’ consciousnesses 24 hours after they saw it. It’s not that film. It’s like a mashup of The Lego Movie and Captain America: Civil War, one of these noisy, constantly moving thrill-pieces that has just enough character moments to give you the illusion that it means something. Hey, I like looking at money onscreen. And for this type of movie, Ready Player One acquits itself well. Also: Art3mis, as a female lead, is a well-developed character with real motivations who does several things better than Parzival. And it does not feel like she’s there just as a prize or to admire him, even if their romance does feel super-rushed. Aech is a lot of fun, and I would have loved to see more about them and less about Wade/Parzival, to be honest. 

But there’s a lot that frustrates me, too. Main antagonist Nolan Sorrento’s avatar couldn’t scream Bad Guy any louder if he had a Flex Mentallo “Hero (Nero?) of the Beach” glowing sign over his head. His motivations are cardboard, and his avatar (aka how he sees himself, if he could be anything) only reveals his two-dimensionality. How much more interesting would it have been if his avatar was female, or more traditionally handsome, or something that gave him a hint of an inner life? The screenwriters try to ameliorate the ridiculous over-design of I-R0K (T.J. Miller), his skull-thoraxed henchman, by making him alternately whiny and wisecracking. But it doesn’t work. I also agree that every one of the Nerd Makes Sure You Understood That Reference moments are cringe-making.

As for your comments on casting: I think it’s a little unfair to be upset that real-life Parzival and Art3mis aren’t ugly enough. Hollywood doesn’t make films about ugly people, my friend, except for passion projects involving actors caping for Oscar’s attention. The pact of filmgoing is the pact of any religion: They can be prettier than us, but they have to suffer more than us. And do they, in Ready Player One? No, which is where we come to your comment about a hollow core. The only character who truly suffers is Rylance’s James Halliday, who is magnetic in his shy, silent agony every time he’s onscreen. Everybody else could believably walk away at any time in that story. Nothing keeps them there, not really. But there is so much sound and fury and oh, here come the bad people in vans, that it’s hard to notice all these things until after the film is done. And then the whole edifice just...crumbles away. 

In a time where the online environment for so many people is one of harassment and viciousness — where Parkland kids are being victim-blamed by gun supporters, and artists on DC comic books, like Ethan van Sciver, pursue racist harassment campaigns on Twitter against black critics — the online world of Ready Player One with its golly-gee, lend-a-hand attitude seems outdated, like Second Life. Plus, as anyone who’s spent time in them discovers, nerd subcultures can be some of the most toxic places in existence. Ready Player One is the sort of book beloved by the mainstays of these toxic subcultures, the self-appointed gatekeepers who thrill to punish people unable to keep up with the book’s diarrhea of nerd-culture name-drops. Yet the only bad person in all of the OASIS is Nolan Sorrento.

Spielberg has always presented a more positive view of humanity in adversity than we perhaps deserve. It’s why he’s so beloved — that and his amazing visual storytelling. And he is very visible in the live-action footage, from the gorgeous opening tracking scene that doesn’t need a single syllable of its lengthy voiceover to establish everything you need to know about Wade, to some truly masterful action moments when the Bad Guys first come for him in his high-rise trailer park home. But, to put things into perspective, there were far more Great Spielberg Action Moments in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and that was not a good Spielberg movie. 

As soon as you go into the OASIS (the CGI world), the Spielberg Touch vanishes. And unfortunately, 75 percent of the movie is set in OASIS. Everything is so busy and bright and constantly moving, it’s very difficult to focus on the lead characters and become invested in the action, and even his little hooks don’t hook. The first race for the Bronze Key is one of the most boring car races I’ve ever seen. And it has King Kong and a T.Rex in it, so that’s quite an accomplishment. 

But by the time the final boss battle comes along, I guess I had developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, because I was OK with it. I didn’t see a single shot that I thought, “OK, I’m stealing that someday,” but the whole leaning out of the DeLorean with a railgun like you’re a Vietnam-era Huey door gunner was kinda fun. The ultimate ending is both satisfying and completely predictable. 

Abrams: I agree that Ready Player One's basic scenario is like a mashup of The Lego Movie and Captain America: Civil War. But while I like the latter film and have seen it three times in theaters (don't look at me, I'm hideous), the former movie pissed me off. I mean, I like it, in parts. But I'm put off by the idea of a patchwork Po-Mo world where anything can be thrown together for the sake of fulfilling some pseudo-child-like ideal of unlimited, context-less imagination! 

This is the part where I take my shoe off and start banging it on the bar. 

It's bullshit, Alex! Because The Lego Movie not only tells viewers that all things pop cultural are made equal — it also insists that all things should co-exist side-by-side with each other. We're all the same, the film says. We all want the same things! Nothing is invalid, and everything is allowed! What a load of horse manure. That's the most pernicious myth of all, the nice-sounding lie that tells us that we are all the same at heart. No, we are not. "We" are different, and different is not bad. Because if you think that you are the contents of your bookshelf, then you may assume that liking different things than others is a kind of character flaw. 

Well-meaning, technically polished, but soul-less movies like The Lego Movie and Ready Player One leave viewers feeling good about themselves because this time, the meaningless onscreen conflict between Good and Evil has a flash of personality, a little technical flair, a lot of winking/self-conscious humor or whatever helps you sleep at night. But Ready Player One is about a blockbuster-centric world that's not unlike ours, the one where Spielberg continues to remake every time he throws more production money at a new Transformers sequel. I want to believe that every Ready Player One finances two more The Posts. Because the only thing that can stop a bad person with a corporation is a good person with a corporation! But I also kinda don't care? To arms, to arms!

Hang on, let me get down from the ceiling rafters. No, no, I can do it, just a second.

Look, I know my expectations for this film are unreasonably high. Let me try again. I love what you've said about Aech and Art3mis. And you're right on a lot of counts here: These characters do have far more agency than they do in the book. They make choices, even if they're sometimes unbelievable. Like, in the book, Watts — and not Art3mis — is the one who infiltrates Sorrento's company and single-handedly sets up his team for victory. And look at Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki), two characters who are far more monochromatic in the novel. Here, they get to crack wise in ways that make them look like smarter than your average over-glorified sidekicks. But they are just sidekicks, and Aech does ultimately say that Watts/Parzival deserves to win. Which, uh...blood pressure rising!

I also love what you said about Halliday and how out-of-time his personal qualms with the OASIS are. But that's why all of the Spielbergian touches — the relatively stream-lined narrative, the clever group dynamic, the sometimes goony, sometimes cruel sense of humor — rankle on my nerves. Halliday is never really in the film. Spielberg, Penn and Cline highlight this essential point later in an exchange that's not in the book. Watts asks Anorak/Halliday if he's just a program. He says no. Then he asks if that means Halliday is alive in real life. Negatory. Then Watts asks the million dollar question: What does that make Anorak/Halliday's virtual presence? There's no answer, because there can't be, not in Ready Player One.

I joked with you about this earlier, but I really do think that Ready Player One would mean a lot less to fans if it were directed by anyone but Monsieur Spielberg. Sure, I would have preferred Joe Dante or the Wachowskis to make this film. Both Dante and the Wachowskis are better suited for this supposedly "subversive" (ha!) take on the corporatization of pop culture. But the idea of Spielberg examining his Godzilla-sized cultural footprint is tantalizing. Look at the Ready Player One scene that takes place inside an interaction version of The Shining (the movie)? This sequence isn't in the book, mind you. It also pointedly repurposes several key scenes from both Stephen King's original novel and Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson's adaptation. In this specific context, Spielberg, Penn and Cline's inclusion of waltzing zombies doesn't seem so random, especially when you think of it as Spielberg's way of questioning the value of world that he helped make.

Then again, I don't see a lot of deep introspection in Ready Player One. There's a lot of hand-holding and empty reassurances that you can love what you love because your love is pure, OK? But, if we are going to ascribe a personality to this hulking, worlds-spanning, self-justifying juggernaut...doesn't this make Spielberg look a little self-pitying and/or disingenuous? I mean, no, I don't honestly believe — and I never said I did — that they would cast "uglier" actors. Nor did I expect great insights on modern life's heavy reliance on various kinds of virtual reality. But if you're going to touch, but not follow through, on these heavy ideas, why do this film at all? If the key to enjoying Ready Player One is finding the human personality hidden inside its labyrinthine machinations — basically the same reason why Halliday loves Adventure: Warren Robinett, that game's programmer, hid his name in a secret chamber at the heart of his creation — then why does everything here feel so...empty?

Also, I would much rather rewatch the flawed, but enjoyable Kingdom of the Crystal Skull before I ever go near Ready Player One. Good night, everybody!