I set out to write about this movie the way that I thought it should be approached: with full nerd-immersion.
Re-reading the book to brush up on all the references, character nuances, and plot points before going to see the movie, I was surprised to find myself enjoying the book much in the way that one enjoys a big-budget action film.
I remembered it as a disappointing mashup of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Snow Crash, a comparison that isn't unique – in an interview with SyFy, Ernest Cline directly says the Roald Dahl book was an inspiration.
And while I wasn't disturbed upon first or second reading by the constant litany of pop culture references (most of which, I must admit, I was only familiar with through cultural osmosis, not lived experience, having been born smack in the middle of the Millennials), I thought it a shame that while it pulled inspiration and source material from practically every science fiction and fantasy canon, the world constructed by the book itself failed to meet the same standards of the imaginative, speculative, pointed and politically allegorical universes from which it takes inspiration.
If you aren't familiar with the book or film, it's about a virtual world called the OASIS, created by James Halliday, a video game prodigy turned reclusive billionaire. When he dies, he launches a contest to give his vast fortune and control of the simulation to whoever can find the "Easter Egg" he's hidden in the massive game.
There are riddles, keys, and gates to be found along the way, but the trials to decode the riddles, find these keys, and clear the gates are based entirely on an obsessive knowledge about video games, movies, music, and pop culture from Halliday's youth in the late 1970s and early 1980s: which explains why an 18-year-old born in 2027 cares at all about these dated references.
Although the protagonists and narrative are suited for today's teens, the target audience for the book is clearly those who would be closer to Halliday's age (and of course it's not unheard-of, given the success of franchises like Twilight and The Hunger Games, for Generation X and even Baby Boomers to enjoy dystopian YA books).
The circumstances and challenges presented for a kid (our hero protagonist, Wade Watts) living in abject poverty IRL, trying to win at life in a world-wide immersive VR simulation and defend it from a soul-crushing corporate entity, is much less impressive being published in 2011, than when the original Metaverse was conceived in 1992, and the conditions of the world that drives people to immerse themselves in a video game for most of their lives and social interactions (a global energy crisis, widespread economic, political, and environmental instability) are sketched as a fairly generic dystopia, which is escaped simply by being freakishly well-versed in popular culture of the 80s.
This is where the backlash against the book usually comes in: its central conceit, that liking, identifying with, and storing vast amounts of information about certain media makes you better, more authentic, more intelligent (and in this case, more worthy of inheriting responsibility for the fate of the world) than your peers, is grating. It carries with it the air of smugness and superiority, not to mention the gatekeeping and exclusivity, demonstrated by groups like Gamergate and other "causes" whose champions weaponize their perceived victimization due to their niche interests, and render them insufferable.
But I want to be clear: most people in the year of our lord 2018 don't actually have a problem with the universes created by Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, George Lucas, Joss Whedon, and all the other white male gods of the nerdiverse (one reference I forgot until re-reading was that both Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton are name-dropped as being still alive in 2045, and are elected co-mayors of the OASIS), their problem is with the anger and entitlement that comes out of these fan groups' perceptions of their own victimization and the toxic nerd culture that produces. The Daily Dot's Gavier Baker-Whitelaw explains and summarizes the pre-hate for the film that circulated in jokes about its target audience on Twitter well in her article "Why the internet is so ready to hate ‘Ready Player One’". It's also distilled well in this "rejected theme song" by Demi Adejuyigbe:
To further clarify both the discourse around toxic nerd culture and how engaging with certain types of media considered nerdy is perceived socially today, when Michael B. Jordan, a star of Marvel's Black Panther, which recently surpassed the box office record of Titanic this summer, revealed that he's a fan of anime like Dragonball Z and Naruto, the nerdiverse and larger cultural sphere went wild with approval.
These days, there's very little social stigma against people who play video games, watch anime, and identify with their love of comic books or franchises like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, because these once-niche interests have gone entirely mainstream thanks to the proliferation of media on the internet and the mass market capitalization on these cultural products. The stigma lies only in the holier-than-thou attitude that some people who identify with these cultural products project on the so-called "normies."
But after seeing Steven Spielberg's adaption of Ready Player One, I wasn't disappointed in the nerds who love this book, but for them.
First, I have to acknowledge the reality of copyright. I know that it's simply unfeasible for a Hollywood movie to actually put every musical, cinematic, and video game reference that was jammed into the book into the movie, if only because of the limitations of licensing. Apparently Spielberg spent three years with a licensing team trying to secure rights to use Star Wars characters and the Japanese giant robot Ultraman.
But after reading the book and seeing the movie back to back, I found myself in a fit of entitled, insufferable nerdrage at its deviations.
I wanted to scream "REEEEEE!!! THIS ISN'T CANON!" mere minutes into the film, when Wade logs in to the OASIS for the first time and fails to see the words "Ready Player One" appear on the load-in.
Other reviews have called Ready Player One "an interactive museum of late-20th- and early-21st-century entertainment, a maze of niche tastes, cultish preoccupations and blockbuster callbacks", "wallowing in ‘80s nostalgia", and its "weaponized nostalgia" an "exercise in overkill"... but I truly wonder if me and these reviewers saw the same movie.
Ready Player One's film adaptation strips out almost all of the lore related to the early days of video games beyond the Atari 2600: there's scarcely a reference to Dungeons and Dragons, Zork, or a single MUD. There is not a moment on screen where the protagonists play cabinet arcade games (something they do for approximately 25% of the book). Key cultural touchstones that feature heavily in the book's plot like the game Joust and Rush's album 2112 are cut out of the narrative in favor of higher-acton sequences like car races and zombie fights, and appear only as posters and t-shirts. And while some viewers might be delighted by these easter egg-like references to the book, I found them annoyingly sparse and superficial.
Don't get me wrong, there are many, many pop culture references, but the most obvious ones have been updated to appeal to Millennials and Generation Z: a Minecraft world, the Overwatch character Tracer appearing in multiple scenes, and a swarm of HALO grunts. And many of the cinematic references, like the presence of King Kong, a T-Rex from Jurassic Park, and the extended sequence of their immersion in a virtual version of The Shining's Overlook Hotel, seem to be poised to appeal more to Spielberg's fanboys than Cline's.
There were so many tiny moments that I expected the minutiae of the book to shine through: I was watching the film with the same dissecting and critical eye that the book's characters use to log and categorize the minutiae of the 80s.
Why would they change the year printed on the quarters over Halliday's eyes in his funeral scene to read "1972," when in the prologue of the book there's a footnote devoted to the fact they say "1984"? Why (well, for obvious reasons, but still) would they change Parzival's license plate to read "PARZIVAL" instead of "ECTO-88" – and why does he have his tricked-out DeLorean with KITT on it to start with, when he's supposed to be a totally broke kid who's still in high school?
What happened to the high school? One of the major redeeming factors of the OASIS was that it was a gigantic public school system and a repository of knowledge that was free for all, despite the crumbling infrastructure of actual cities: a utopian vision of free access to information that today's internet pioneers are still striving for.
It also nullifies and inverts the central conflict of the book: the big bad guys, corporate overlords IOI, don't only want to sell advertising space in OASIS, they want to apply content filters and charge a monthly subscription free, limiting access to the escapism and freedom of expression that millions have found in an open source platform for education, work, and all the fun stuff, that allows one to improve their lot in real life through an avatar unencumbered by their race, gender, and social class.
The book also acknowledges that this escape can be a prison, and the real-life potential consequences of spending all of your time logged in, which leads to several of the characters becoming complete recluses. In the middle of the book, when Wade has successfully used his OASIS celebrity from finding the first key to secure enough virtual product-endorsement money to rent an apartment in the real world away from his abusive and drug-addicted extended family, he is cooped up in a one-room efficiency apartment with the windows blacked out, completely isolated and loathing of his physical existence. Two of his friends, Daito and Shoto, are revealed to be hikikomori in Japan, who although they are brothers in the OASIS, have never met in real life. And the warnings that his love interest Art3mis and best friend Aech give him, that no one is anything like their real identity in the OASIS, are later proven true by the revelations that Art3mis has a birthmark that she considers disfiguring, and that Aech, who is a semi-famous white, male gladiator competing in televised battles in the OASIS, is in reality a homeless, gay, black woman.
Aech's identity in particular is a high point for the book as an example of how anonymity and the construction of an alternative online identity can be socially beneficial. When she finally meets Wade, she explains that her mother taught her to always present as white and male in the OASIS for preferential treatment, after apologizing for deceiving him with her gender presentation throughout their friendship. After revealing her sexuality to her family, she was kicked out of the house and forced to live in her RV, but is able to sustain herself online and on the street due to her online fame. In the film, changing her character into an orc-like cyborg is a classic example of lazy fantasy racism that erases this illustration of the potentially liberatory power of technology to supercede social bias.
And instead of preserving the OASIS as a place of knowledge and freedom, where players can escape regardless of how bleak their reality is, the final sequence of the film reveals that after Wade and his friends take over control of the OASIS, they close it two days a week. It's a maddeningly antithetical appeal to normalcy.
These gripes, along with those catalogued by others including the literal weaponization of the peace-loving Iron Giant left me angry. Even in a book where fat, ugly social outcasts can star in a rags-to-riches story, none of them are allowed in Hollywood to be even slightly overweight or have a spot of acne.
In the spirit of the book, every reference that was legally possible for them to include should have been spot on. How could a fanbase that loves the idea of combing frame by frame through vintage games and movies, memorizing every line of dialogue, and knowing endless amounts of trivia about the media of their choice be satisfied with less?
What was a celebration of escapism, that technology can bring people together and set them free in ways that reality can't, becomes a screed against geek culture, a watered-down and hyper-monetized, ad-riddled (don't think we didn't notice the Pizza Hut drone and Doritos in Lena Waithe's van) Avatar-looking-ass mess, and an insult to fans and fanatics who did their homework. Steven Spielberg, why didn't you do yours?