A review in three parts:
- Ready Player One, the book
- Ready Player One, the 2018 movie, as an adaptation of the book
- Ready Player One, the 2018 movie, as a movie
de gustibus non disputandum est
– Latin maxim
Hey hey hey, hey now, don’t be mean. We don’t have to be mean.
– Buckaroo Banzai
In order to understand my review of Ready Player One, the 2011 book, you need to see my DVD shelf.
And understand this is not a collection I have constructed after Ready Player One, it’s my actual collection. I’m James Halliday, I’m from the same generation, I watched the same movies, I played D&D, I programmed in BASIC on a Commodore 64, I played Joust and Tempest in my small town video arcades, I get almost all of the references. I don’t have to research Schoolhouse Rock or Family Ties, I watched them, on a TV, in the 1980s. So that is obviously going to colour my perception of the book.
At a basic level, the book is about a series of quests based on incredibly precise knowledge of a particular 1980s movie and video game subculture. It’s also, although only secondarily, about the progression in a single lifetime from home computers that could barely display squares on a screen to realistic real-time videogames.
But at a more advanced level 2, it’s about fandom and nostalgia and isolation and connection.
Here’s the thing, you can enjoy it at a basic level while still seeing level 2.
De gustibus non disputandum est is commonly translated as “there’s no accounting for taste”, but a clearer meaning from disputo has the concepts of “to weigh, examine, investigate, treat of, discuss a doubtful subject, either by meditating or (more commonly) by speaking upon it”. So something like “there is no discussing about taste” or even “there’s no arguing about taste”. You can’t tell someone else what they should like.
So on a basic level, I like it, it moves along, I understand all the references, they’re not obscure to me, they’re memories.
On a more advanced level, this is a book about terribly broken people. There are no heroes. One man with toxic fandom and toxic nostalgia forced millions of other people to try to like exactly what he liked, in order to get his money. Og puts it clearly: “Jim always wanted everyone to share his obsessions, to love the same things he loved. I think this contest is his way of giving the entire world an incentive to do just that.” So you have damaged solitary James Halliday holed up with his billions in a world falling apart.
Is Og a hero? Og who also hides out with his billions, surrounded by servants in a fake-Rivendell? Og who spies on people in private chatrooms using his superuser powers? I don’t think so. He is slightly redeemed by the fact that he made free educational software (in a world where education doesn’t particularly help most people get jobs), but that’s about it. Is Gregarious Simulation Systems a hero? Well, access to the OASIS is free and they provide guaranteed anonymity. And that’s about it. Free wifi in a city full of homeless people is not exactly corporate generousity. Free open source world-building templates isn’t either, when you still need to earn credits somehow in order to make your own world.
And Parzival, Aech, Art3mis, Daito and Shoto? They are all profoundly broken. Wade Watts is isolated, terrified, and socially-awkward in the real world. Daito and Shoto met in a “support group for hikikomori, young people who had withdrawn from society and chosen to live in total isolation”. A big part of the book has Parzival sealed in a tiny room alone on the OASIS all day. They are all, in other words, exactly the sort of isolated obsessives that you would have to be in order to share Halliday’s obsessions in the level of perfect detail he demanded.
And the author hasn’t buried his understanding of how odd this all is. He understands that Halliday’s fandom and nostalgia are toxic. He has Parzival say, when in a precise virtual re-creation of Halliday’s house: “Looking around, I wondered why Halliday, who always claimed to have had a miserable childhood, had later become so nostalgic for it.” It is not surprising that Wade Watts, as a teenager, doesn’t yet realise that reality is the only game you don’t get to play over again, and that Halliday would have agonized over the fact that he couldn’t go back and change things. Nor does he realise yet that nostalgia is also another kind of escape, but one that is uniquely available to adults, not teenagers.
As toxic as Halliday and his contest and its players are, you can certainly still feel empathy for these characters. Halliday growing up socially-awkward in his small town, escaping from the reality of his abusive alcoholic father and bipolar mother, escaping in to a world of rules from what must have been a world of chaos for him. Wade Watts lives in a tiny trailer shared with other families, with gunshots ringing out around him. Wade Watts with a dead teenage father who was shot looting a grocery store and a dead drug-addicted mother who worked as an OASIS escort, followed by living with a hostile aunt and her series of dangerous loser boyfriends. Of course he’s going to say “For the last five years, the Hunt had given me a goal and purpose.” He lives on the margins of society in a post-climate-disaster America, of course he wants to escape.
Whether it’s 1986 or 2045, there are always going to be people who want to escape reality.
For the book, as a book, I think it’s basically fine. It is wildly improbable that Wade Watts could actually have consumed and memorized all the Halliday Canon that he has, but it is needed to make the engine of the story work.
These broken characters connecting online and later offline? Well, to me the characters are flawed difficult people who interact in understandable ways.
Halliday realising at the end that reality has its merits is perfectly plausible, and him requiring people to cooperate at the end is reasonable both as him teaching an object lesson but also because lots of quests require multiplayer cooperation, and also D&D basically can’t happen without multiple players and a Dungeon Master.
Is it weird to make a book out of era-specific genre-specific references one piled atop the other? I guess so. I have to admit I found it surprising that someone would do such a deep and specific dive. But here’s the thing: every book doesn’t have to be for you, or have exactly the characters you want behaving exactly the way you’d want them to behave. It’s fiction. Hate it if you want, love it if you want, just don’t be mean either way. De gustibus non disputandum est.
Toxic fandom and toxic nostalgia
I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.
– Groucho Marx
Before I go on to talk about the movie, I have to spend some time with fandom and nostalgia. This seems to be a key pivot point between what I understand to be a lot of people who don’t like the book, and is also related to the issue of people who dislike all of the genres this book encompasses.
Toxic fandom is, to my mind, a kind of exclusionary fandom. A fandom that looks down on people for somehow enjoying things incorrectly. A fandom that looks down on people for liking different things.
Part of this is human nature, forming into cliques, excluding outsiders, but it is something we need to strive against.
Toxic fandom demands a kind of precision that makes toxic fans almost unbearable. “Halliday seemed to expect everyone around him to share his obsessions, and he often lashed out at those who didn’t.”
Toxic nostalgia similarly is about escaping to some (possibly partially-imaginary) past, excluding the present. It holds an attraction when your present isn’t what you want it to be. Revisiting the past offers the illusory potential to change what you don’t like about your current life. At its extreme it becomes almost a veneration of some particular era or style.
The book didn’t invent these behaviours, and it’s only on the most superficial possible reading that it celebrates them. Wade Watts knows this: “Standing there, under the bleak fluorescents of my tiny one-room apartment, there was no escaping the truth. In real life, I was nothing but an antisocial hermit.”
I don’t see how you can read the book and imagine that Cline is celebrating Watts or Halliday as heroes. They are broken people. Just because Watts wins in the end, doesn’t mean we have to join his toxic fandom club; I wouldn’t want to even if they would have me as a member.
Indeed, not all fans are toxic fans, and not all nostalgia is toxic nostalgia. The 1980s were an actual time. There were actual teenagers then. Some of them liked the things that are in this book. To dismiss them, to act as if they shouldn’t exist, is to be exclusionary in a way that approaches the behaviour of toxic fans. You like one thing, I like another thing, what’s the point in trying to dismiss someone else’s real enjoyment?
There seems to be some critique of the book (and the movie) that basically is something about not liking toxic fandom, or not liking toxic nostalgia, or not liking this particular set of subgenres of 80s culture. I honestly don’t understand this critique. Books and movies can be about things you don’t like, while still being entertaining, or interesting, or true. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist. Because what you’re ultimately saying then is that people with a different fandom shouldn’t exist either, even if they are perfectly nice people whose interests harm no one. (For more about this, see my blog post Critiques of Ready Player One.)
Dozens of books, cartoons, movies and miniseries have attempted to tell the story of everything that happened next, but every single one of them got it wrong.
– Wade Watts (Parzival)
Ready Player One (2018) is a total failure as an adaptation of the book. In pretty much every possible way that I can think of. It’s such a failure that if you don’t want the blow-by-blow you can just skip to my blog post How to watch the Ready Player One 2018 movie (if you are a fan of the book).
The closest thing I can think of to the experience of watching the movie after reading the book is this: it’s 1982, and you play D&D with your friends, and you hear there’s going to be a movie called Mazes and Monsters, and you’re excited. You didn’t even know there were enough people playing D&D to have a movie made of it. And it will make such a cool movie, with quests and magic and battles. And then you start watching Mazes and Monsters on TV. With a growing sense of confusion and dread. What… what is this thing? This is not D&D. How could anyone think this was D&D?
And so that’s basically Ready Player One the book as turned into Ready Player One the 2018 movie.
The entire foundation of the book is gone, and instead the movie is hung on some flimsy scaffolding. It’s some kind of generic corporate shell of entertainment. It is, quite frankly, cowardly filmmaking.
The book is about toxic fandom and toxic nostalgia as a way to escape a painful reality. The nostalgia is a very very specific set of cultural references. These are real cultural references and well connected together; I know this because they are my actual lived experiences. Video games in arcades, science fiction and fantasy movies, Dungeons and Dragons, computer programming, these are all real things from a real era.
The movie didn’t have to be a scene-by-scene reshoot of the book, but there is a story there. Loneliness, escape, computers, science fiction, fantasy, a quest. A celebration of loving movies? The history of videogames going from a few pixels on a screen to near-realism in a single generation? Some humour maybe? It could have been a movie with compassion, a movie with empathy, a movie about inclusion and connection.
Instead the movie has contempt for escape, and in particular for escape into the OASIS. Which is pretty rich coming in a movie, when the experience of a movie is all about sitting in a dark room escaping into someone else’s dreams. You see this contempt right at the beginning of the movie, as Watts descends the stacks and the shot pans past the woman poledancing, played for a moment’s humour. How ridiculous, we are meant to think, that someone might imagine themselves to be someone else, to be somewhere else. Do you hear an echo of I-r0k from the book? “If I didn’t spend so much time offline, getting laid…”
And from there on we get a movie that likes I-r0k better than the other characters. Which is understandable, because the movie embodies I-r0k’s contempt for everything the book celebrates. All those bothersome details. All that actual enjoyment. Let’s just jumble everything together and make lots of money instead, because who cares.
And so off we go. With a car race. No need to be afraid of these videogame geeks and their obscure interests, here’s people racing cars instead.
And you win by going backwards, because Halliday doesn’t like rules. Which is the total absolute antithesis of book-Halliday, or of anyone based on book-Halliday. Programming is about rules. Games are about rules. His whole entire life is about rules. He loves rules. To have him say he doesn’t like rules is to betray the foundation of the book, yet again.
And then… The Shining (1980). Totally wrong genre. And the scene is not about enjoying the movie, or enjoying movies in general. And it’s ultimately just some test of whether you empathize with Halliday, if you understand his emotions. Which book-Halliday would have hated. He wanted you to enjoy things, the same things he enjoyed. He didn’t want you to have any connection with him as a person.
And the Saturday Night Fever (1977) dance floor, wrong era, wrong style.
And then the fight includes Chucky (again, wrong genre) and some exploding face thing finishes Sorrento (I don’t even know what that was). And The Iron Giant is used as a war machine, which is incidentally a betrayal of that movie and of the character of the Iron Giant, but again, who cares, it’s all just interchangeable content-fodder. Who cares what decade or genre or what the original characters were about, let’s just make money. Something blows up something else, whatever.
And then a dramatic scene is … whether he can get the key in the lock? (Which has some vague sexual overtones, with the IOI support team shouting something like “get it in”.)
And let’s take a side trip to the IOI support team, who are all dressed in some kind of pseudo British school uniform. The support team with whom the movie tries to make us empathise. These are horrible people. They use their knowledge to help an evil corporation. But there they are, humanized more than most of the other characters, the support team and I-r0k. Because what corporation doesn’t appreciate the generic geeks who whisper pop culture references in its ears, so that it can sound like it cares, so that it can be Sorrento talking about John Hughes. So the movie basically loves I-r0k and the support team, because they are understandable to a corporation.
Who wants to celebrate geeks when you can celebrate office workers and contractors?
And then the big test is… whether you sign a contract? Seriously what even is this movie?
Plus which, switching back and forth between the OASIS and the real world outside removes all of the sense of peril. It strips away all meaning and importance from what happens in the OASIS. Which loses all the sense of what it is to play a game. When you lose in a game, you don’t dismiss it, it is a real experience, it is a real loss.
And the characters other than the corporate-beloved I-r0k and support team, they barely exist.
Wade Watts is… a generic guy.
Art3mis is… a generic girl.
They have zero chemistry online or offline.
There is no humour. The movie’s idea of humour is literally a kick in the balls.
Most of the time the movie can’t even be bothered to get basic things right. Like in the book when you log in to the OASIS, it says Ready Player One. That’s the entire point of the title. But in the movie, when you log in to the OASIS it’s… some generic cyberspace stuff. And the movie can’t be bothered to get fan things right, so while it leaves the Buckaroo Banzai reference in, it nevertheless manages to get it wrong. The whole thing just feels lazy.
Nothing controversial, nothing surprising. A movie that isn’t about a time or a place or an emotion or an idea.
A movie without a heart.
Seriously, what would it have cost to make Aech a lesbian? I can write the scene, it takes a few seconds:
Wade Watts: “but… we spent all that time talking about girls…”
Helen Harris: “um, Z, girls can like girls…”
See. There. Done. Aech is a lesbian. But that would have required a movie that actually cared about the people watching it, a movie that wanted to have an inclusive message that would be seen by millions, rather than a movie designed to bother no one.
Ready Player One 2018 movie – Conclusion
What is the nature of fandom? What is it to be alone and yet to feel so connected to a movie or a video game? To feel so connected that you want to be in the movie or video game?
That is what Ready Player One the book is about. That is what Ready Player One the 2018 movie could have been about, but fails to be about. And is at the core of Ready Player One (2018) failing on basically every possible level, even at the level of basic moviemaking, failing to be anything but soulless special effects.
Had the movie succeeded, the key scene would have been the only real scene in Ready Player One (2018), the only scene where you feel a touch of Spielberg, the scene at the end in Halliday’s childhood bedroom, where young Halliday is playing Adventure on the Atari 2600. What you’re supposed to see, first and foremost, is that boy is you. And that boy is Parzival, and that boy is Artemis, and that boy is at the heart of adult Halliday, and a redeeming part of the rather horrible person he became. Because the real lesson of the movie should have been empathy.
And you also should have seen that there are actually three boys. There is the boy alone in the room. There is the boy playing Adventure, moving a square around on a screen. And there is a boy who is a fully-outfitted adventurer, creeping through dripping tunnels and exploring caves in higher resolution that virtual reality will ever provide. And all three boys are in some sense equally real, they’re all just different facets of the boy playing the video game.
But you don’t get any of that, because the movie is basically a betrayal of what it should be.
It looks pretty. It glows with all the pixel art that $175 million can spray across the screen.
That’s about it. Who is Wade Watts as a person? I don’t know. Who are any of the characters other than Halliday? It’s not really clear. Only I-r0k has any hint of personality. Sorrento is some generic bad corporate suit guy out of central casting.
The big videogame finale is… not signing a contract.
Preceded by the dramatic (and vaguely sexual moment) of… trying to insert a key.
The big showdown scene is some of the most awkward filmmaking I’ve seen.
Sorrento with the gun pointed up in the air (which also doesn’t even remotely happen in the book).
We’re in the stacks, and all kinds of people have turned up, and this guy killed people they know AND destroyed or damaged some of their houses AND just killed their avatars that they spent years leveling up and
1) in post-catastrophe America in an impoverished area not one of them has a gun
2) even though they vastly outnumber him they all step away when he… points his gun in the air
3) when he sees Wade holding the egg he just… gives up
What is that? I don’t even understand what that is. How is that an actual scene?
The movie is almost totally devoid of humour, and falls on such hilarious tropes as kicking someone in the balls.
Not only are the characters cardboard, but they have no chemistry.
It’s not surprising they chose The Iron Giant as a key character (and then misused him), the whole movie is a tin man. A movie without a heart. A shell controlled by a corporation.
There are only a few tiny glimmers of what this movie could have been.
The scene at the end, with the boy playing Adventure… there you see some humanity, some loneliness. The whole movie should have felt like that. Halliday bumbling around looking for the egg… that’s amusing, that’s some actual filmmaking. Where was that in the rest of the movie?
The scene with Halliday in the photon torpedo casing is a more believable contest announcement than the book’s version with Halliday dancing.
The scene where Art3mis hides behind the gaming chair and the couch and then sneaks out the door is awkward filmmaking… until you realise this is exactly what it would look like in a game. In lots of games you have to sneak through places by hiding and (even though it seems like you should be noticed), as long as you stay within the rules of what will attract attention from the NPCs, you can make rather improbable escapes. This is a nice nod to gaming.
Periodically showing the IOI player making his way through Adventure shows how hard it would have been to make a movie about watching someone play a video game in virtual reality interesting.
And yes, Halliday’s favourite music video (which is not mentioned in the book) would indeed have been Take On Me (1984) by A-ha.
But sadly those glimmers never come together into anything like an enjoyable or even coherent movie. In the end this big glowing golden egg is empty.