You know how there’s that saying, “Never meet your heroes”? I feel like there should be a correlary for the movie industry “never make a movie when you don’t respect the original property”. Saying that makes it sound like I didn’t like the movie version of Ready Player One, which is not entirely correct. There’s just a really big problem with the movie that I’ll get into in a moment, but it’s the kind of thing that being a more niche kind of geek makes more complicated.
So to get this out of the way – yes, I read the book. I’ve read it a couple times, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The book is this deep dive into the nerdiest of the nerdy from back in the 70s and 80s, and makes reference to the kind of geek culture that exists now, but is more acceptable to admit to, even if not everyone is the same level of intense about these nerdy things these day. It’s the story of Wade Watts, a lumpy trailer-trash (literally – lives in a trailer and spends his free time at the dump) kid who escapes from his pathetic life by living almost entirely within the vistual world of the OASIS, a system that has been widely adopted around the world as a substitute for the real world which is dealing with climate change, massive inequality, all those pre-apocalyptic problems that we see coming.
He’s part of a virtual scavenger hunt for three keys which allow the first finder to gain financial control of the company that owns the OASIS. In the book, to gain the keys you need obscure knowledge of specific nerdy properties from the 70s and 80s, and to know the background of how some of those things were made. This ranges from deep knowledge of early D&D modules, arcade games, being able to quote movies in their entirety, and more. The story ends sadly and triumphantly, and you feel like it was a great ride, and that you had a peek into a neo-futuristic world where the nerdiest aspects of our past that you had no idea existed are celebrated en masse.
I’m thinking what happened with the movie version is a combination of a couple things. First off, the sheer volume of intellectual property you’d have to get permission to use based on the original book is vast, and comes from a wide range of companies, including some that are known for keeping a very close hold on how things are used, especially in a for-profit setting like a movie. Additionally, when you’ve got a massive rainmaker as your director who has tangential control of many iconic properties, or connections to people who have control of iconic properties from a similar era as the book originally intended (80s and 90s as opposed to 70s and 80s), then it’s a tempting proposition to use those things instead of the more obscure, difficult to license ones.
The result is a movie that seems more washed in blah despite looking very pretty. The references don’t feel quite as obscure, and so it feels like the kind of thing that anyone who has been paying attention to pop culture in recent years would be able to do well with (when in the book, the hunt was only really accessible to those who did deep-dive studying). The kind of things that are challenges in this movie – a car race, The Shining, and playing a single video game – are not the multi-level challenges that appeared in the book, let alone being much more pop-culture friendly than the kind of things that appeared in the book. Not only that, but nearly all the characters are – in traditional Hollywood fashion – prettied up and made to look like attractive people, instead of the sunless video-game obsessives that we know in the book.
If you hadn’t read the book, I can see how you would see this movie as a fun nostalgic romp. But having read the book, I feel like the movie just took the basic plot, squeezed everything nuanced and interesting out, and then left us with empty space to be filled with mass-pop-culture friendly properties. It could have been a more thoughtful, better made movie. The sad part is, the people who made it will probably never think about it that way.