I remember when I saw The Matrix. It blew me away. Not only because it’s a great film, but the movie excited me because all through the 90s, I knew that computer generated special effects were going to allow for new kinds of storytelling, a hyper-imaginative level of stories that could never be done in film before. The Matrix was, to me, the first to really go totally wild with this new technology—not for its own sake, but in the service of a story that was too impractical to tell using conventional special effects techniques.
These wildly impractical stories were now possible. And now the horizons of what kinds of stories could be told in movies just blew outward.
Avatar was the next big step. Now you have a movie about the portability of consciousness—not the most mundane of sci-fi concepts to expect a mainstream audience to grok—and it becomes the most successful film of all time. Mainstream audiences are now ready to have complex sci-fi concepts embedded in their films for the sake of telling a good story.
Avatar was released in 2009.
Here we are in 2018, and Steven Spielberg makes a film based on a book about a video game.
He wants it to appeal to mass audiences, sure. I get that. He wants it to be fun and exciting, yeah, of course. But keep in mind, this is nine years after Avatar, and people have been playing video games in their homes for forty years. I know video games have been part of my life since I was really small. Massively multiplayer online games have been a thing for going on three decades now.
After seeing Ready Player One a couple times, I’m left with one big disappointing conclusion: Spielberg, for all his movie-making mastery, doesn’t get video games.
I’ve read the book. I liked the book. And I didn’t need the movie to adhere to the book that strictly. Spielberg doesn’t make movies to keep the faith with their source material. Look at Jurassic Park: a hugely successful film based only loosely on the hugely successful novel it was allegedly based on. I wanted a Spielberg film, and I was willing to let him take whatever liberties he wanted. This was going to be a very important film in a very specific subsection of sci-fi that I write in, and for many, would be their first exposure to the genre. Last year’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was another exciting success in this genre, and as the fifth highest-grossing film of 2017, established without lingering doubt that audiences were ready for fun movies set in video game worlds. When I first started writing Cortanis, I had a strong sense that stories told about and within virtual worlds were a yet unrealized category of science fiction with amazing storytelling potential, and I wanted to explore that landscape myself. At the time, I had never heard of LitRPG—it hadn’t been defined yet. Ready Player One is the first real LitRPG novel that went mainstream, and with Spielberg helping the movie based on it, this was a defining moment for stories about people who play video games.
He took liberties, to be sure. But mainly with the audience.
(This review contains spoilers.)
It assumes we’re dumb
Anyone who’s seen Empire of the Sun (a film also based on a book) knows Spielberg is a master of visual exposition. The first few moments of that movie tell you so much about where you are, what time period, and who the main character is. In Ready Player One, Spielberg seems not to know how to trust the audience with this level of sophistication. Instead the main character is made to just talk to the audience for the first five minutes. Everything shown in the film visually is completely unnecessary—if Wade just gave his monologue over a black screen, it would have made no difference. Spielberg assumes we, the same mainstream audience who made The Matrix and Avatar such hugely successful films, need video games explained to us. We also need to be told that *gasp!* our avatars in the game may not exactly resemble our real live selves. The fact that Wade needed to be told this (to his apparent shock) was frankly rather ridiculous. It strained credulity that a player like Wade who spent so much of his life in the game world needed to be reminded that he had no idea who Art3mis really was in the real, but confesses his love for her and gives her his real name halfway through their first date.
Total nonsense. Wade would know better than that. But Spielberg thinks mainstream audiences are dumb (when it comes to online worlds) and that we would assume that gamers think like this. Some do, certainly. But those are the inexperienced ones. Those are the noobs. Wade is supposed to be an old pro; Oasis is his native land. Speaking as someone who’s played MMOs for over ten years, to me, Wade was acting like someone with very little experience in that realm dealing with people.
Then there’s the issue of the game’s interface. Sure, it’s more fun to watch people jumping around in their living rooms, controlling their characters via some kinesthetic Wii-like interface, than it is watching a bunch of people at their computers with mice and keyboards. But as a practical matter, doing karate moves in the real world to control your video game character is going to put holes in your walls, break your furniture and probably give you a few startling and painful reminders that the real world around you still exists.
And then there are those who play with just a headset, out in the streets.
These people are running pell-mell at imaginary enemies in virtual space. What’s keeping them from running into traffic?
Writing novels about a video game is challenging. The main question I had to answer when I was starting was: why should my readers stay interested? What was at stake? If a character in my book was playing a video game and it started going badly for her, why couldn’t she just stop playing, close out of the game and do something else? That’s the conundrum I struggled with in each of my books: what’s keeping my characters playing, what’s so important in there? Well, Ready Player One establishes the stakes as a boatload of money and competition with a Big Bad Corporation who’s going to put advertising in the game if they win. Oh, kay. Apparently it’s a matter of life and death, because this company has the power to arrest people and imprison them in virtual labor camps because they owe money.
And, the corporation is willing to commit mass murder in order to reach its goal: control of the Oasis. Whoa. Big Bad Corporation is eeevil.
Those are some stakes, okay. But in light of the fact that Wade just saw dozens of people die before his eyes, including his aunt and his neighbors, the movie just went very dark. Wade is already an orphan, and he just lost the last of his family. This should have been devastating to him, but instead, only minutes later, he’s making eyes with Art3mis because she’s cute, and doesn’t seem to care at all about how many people were just killed because he turned down a job offer. He feels no guilt for this, no grief for his aunt who took him in when his parents died, no emotion whatsoever for the people who had just died in his name.
“Sorry about your home and your foster parents.” “What? Who? I’m sorry, I’m busy being ‘disappointed’ by the fact that you’re even more beautiful than your in-game avatar is.”
It’s just jarring. So I’m thinking, okay, this movie is for children. It can’t dwell too much on realistic characters, things like grief. That’s why it couldn’t stay limited to just 80s pop culture, like the book (and this was a defining element of the book. It was not about pop culture; it was about 1980s pop culture). It had to bring in plenty of references to today’s games because kids won’t get all the 80s stuff. Let’s have Minecraft and Overwatch and so on, so the kids will see things they enjoy, too. Makes sense, I guess…
Which brings me to…
If I were a parent, I’d be incredibly disappointed in Spielberg. Probably furious that I’d brought my kids to see a film trusting that the same director who made E.T. and Hook wouldn’t load Ready Play One with huge doses of unnecessary profanity (including a prominent f-bomb and a ‘goddamn’). It’s one thing to drop an expletive in for comedic effect, right Data?
But in this film, it’s more than gratuitous. I saw no reason for it at all, especially the f-bomb. Come on, Spielberg. Is this movie for children, or not?
Then there’s the domestic violence—Wade gets punched in the jaw by the scumbag guy his aunt is with, and sent flying—which I guess is supposed to mean we don’t have to care about his foster parents dying when the stack of homes is blown up. But that moment in the film was more than a little shocking to me. The film yo-yos between jaunty, fun video game movie and dark, violent drama where children are beaten, and innocent people are murdered by the dozens.
I’m a big fan of Jurassic World. This is a good example of a film that handles tone very well, I think. Yes, it’s a fun popcorn dinosaur movie, but when people are killed, the characters react appropriately. There is shock and horror. The characters realize the true gravity of their peril. In Ready Player One, this is not done so well.
There were a lot of pesky little annoyances. Why was it ok for IOI to seize people and imprison them without due process? Why were these massive virtual labor camps (“loyalty centers”) allowed to exist? Why did Nolan get to come back into the game world with his primary character, when that same character was just “zeroed out” in the mecha-Godzilla? Why did Art3mis appear as herself beneath the IOI uniform when she had logged in using a war-room station (if she had logged in using her own credentials, IOI would know exactly which station she was using, and Nolan would not have had to search person-by-person for her)? Would Nolan really have not known he was still in the game world, when Wade and Daito confront him in his office? Why didn’t I-ROK just log out of the game the moment he saw Nolan threaten to use the planet-killing bomb? Why didn’t Nolan fly into a rage and start firing at the kid who just destroyed the future of his company by winning the egg?
That’s not to say there was nothing about the movie I liked. I actually really enjoyed the puzzlehunt aspects of the Oasis. The race in the beginning was fun, the sequence in the Overlook Hotel was great fun, and most of the story taking place in the game world was beautiful, imaginative and full of great little references to find. I also loved Silvestri’s score, especially the moments where he borrowed select cues from other films to compliment the references being made in the visuals (such as his own Back to the Future themes). There were many moments when I heard audience members laugh aloud and cheer when certain references were made, and every so often that person was myself. I wasn’t a big fan of Mobile Suit Gundam growing up, but I grinned seeing the old Batmobile in the race scenes and got a big kick out of the Holy Hand Grenade being used as an actual weapon.
But ultimately, I’m disappointed. And I’m disappointed that I’m disappointed. I was really excited about this film, and I went in willing to give it broad latitude to entertain me. I wanted to see the Oasis, I wanted to see some Spielbergian action set pieces and come away feeling happy this movie was made. Heck, I walked out of Transformers: Rise of the Fallen thinking, “That was a really fun movie.” (Since re-watching it a few times, its flaws are apparent, but I can still set those aside for the sake of mindless fun). Unfortunately, Ready Player One is saddled with a lot of stuff that weighs it down and makes it harder to enjoy.
I don’t often review movies, but I’ve been thinking I might do more of these. In the hopes that this becomes a recurring category of posts here, I guess I should initiate a little rating system.