Ernest Cline’s 2012 novel Ready Player One has been dividing geek fandom since it hit the stands; for some it’s a delightful menagerie of 80s pop culture, and for others it’s warmed over name dropping with little originality. The book is actually somewhere in the middle, a decent concept in these increasingly virtualized times that often lacked compelling characters and followed the pat three act arc so closely it’s got a magical cyber key to demarcate each one. Cline received a rare blessing indeed when Steven Speilberg’s schedule actually lined up to allow his directorial involvement with the project to go forward, and we the audience are now treated to more than a few dollops of nostalgia mixed in with whip-crack visuals and a streamlined adventure fable that will inspire more than a few ear to ear grins.
Credit is due to Cline and co-screenwriter Zak Penn as well; digging through the variety of movies, characters and music the considerable Time Warner archive has to offer, they’ve swapped out a majority of the book’s references for new ones, completely trashed entire quests in favor of newer and better ones, and even managed to make the central love story pop—certainly moreso than it did on the page. A game cast spends the majority of its facetime behind motion captured avatars, but in the real world (a surprisingly small-feeling backlot set of dirty streets and the offices of Corporate Evil Personified) we enjoy our time with the likes of Olivia Cook as the plucky Samantha and Ben Mendhelsohn, well on his way to being cast as the villain in every film from here on out. New additions include TJ Miller’s alternately ominous and hilarious virtual henchman and Hannah John-Kamen as the IRL enforcer. Our main hero, Parzival/Wade, isn’t much more than a video game hero writ large himself, but there’s more than enough going on at all times that we never feel too cheated by a fairly two dimensional lead. Readers of the source material who feel out of sorts after the significant changes to the early missions will be comforted by the spectacular finale, which keeps the important bits from the book and adds a few delights on top.
Spielberg injects just enough heart and soul into Ready Player One to make it the rarest of birds, a film adaptation that improves upon the book in any number of ways. As an architect of much of the cultural magic that the book celebrated, he seems a natural choice, but in fact it’s his longstanding mastery of the mass entertainment that makes him the perfect fit. He knows where to drop a joke, how to make use of a Hollywood classic or two, and when to keep things moving forward almost despite the digital barrage of characters and action swirling around every inch of the frame. Cline’s been writing a sequel that no doubt will give another filmmaker the opportunity to step into this playland in a few years, but I’ll be surprised if it lives up to the gleeful ride Spielberg and his cohorts have cooked up here.