30 March 2018

Careless Memories

It would seem that 2018 is going to be the year that nostalgia truly rules. Roseanne is back on television, Def Leppard and Journey are playing a summer stadium tour, and a lot of the fashion trends thought dead and buried more than three decades ago are sprouting up again (for better or worse!).

But the granddaddy of all nostalgia trips is making the leap from page to screen this week, so that’s what I’m here to talk about. Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One takes place in a dystopian near-future where a true energy crisis has hit the planet, leaving people stranded at home, even for work. The only way to go anywhere is virtually, though a massive online construct called the OASIS. Through this framework, a story unfolds following (of course) the unlikely heroics of the book’s protagonist, a self-described overweight kid who’s greatest relief was when school moved online so that he could get away from real-life bullies.

If you don’t know the story by now, with all the coverage of the movie, here’s the nutshell version: An eccentric Steve Jobs-type video game creator, the man that started the OASIS, dies and leaves a message for the whole world. Out there, in his virtual creation, he’s hidden an Easter egg and clues to get to it. Whoever gets there first becomes the owner of the OASIS and, oh yeah, a couple hundred billion dollars to boot. Our protagonist – Wade Watts, because his dad was a fan of Stan Lee-style alliteration – becomes an egg-hunter, or gunter for short, with the dreams of winning this spectacular contest. He does so with the help of a few friends, while battling the evil corporation trying to take control of the OASIS for their own nefarious plans – which are basically focused around putting the whole thing behind a pay-wall and selling ad-space.

Okay, all caught up? Up to this point, the book and the film are tracking perfectly. This is the spine of the story, and that spine remains true. But the rest of the skeleton, and the muscles, tendons, organs, and skin that make up the rest of the body of work couldn’t really be much more different.

(**Spoilers for both book and movie ahead, but I’ll try to keep them minor**)

In the book, the challenges to find the three keys are much more cerebral. That’s not to say smarter, but they involve more sleuthing than their movie counterparts. The first key, for instance, is located in a hidden replica of a Dungeons & Dragons expansion, where the seeker then has to battle a demon king in…an arcade game. In the film, as promised by the very earliest of teaser trailers, the challenge consists of an all-out, no-holds-barred race instead.

I’m not going to go point by point and compare and contrast. The gist boils down to this: The book deals more with problem-solving, working things out in your head, piecing puzzles together. The movie has puzzles, too, but they’re more color-by-number visual situations than brain teasers. Basically, finding the Easter egg in the movie requires…finding Easter eggs in movies.

There is, and will continue to be, a lot of debate over whether the changes made in the translation from page to screen are any good. Personally, I told a group of friends a few months ago that I was keeping my expectations low because I knew there was no way they could pull it off by staying true to the book. But after I said that, it dawned on me that I was looking at it wrong. Yes, the film took its cues from the book, but it’s a separate beast. It was never going to be a direct adaptation. And if it didn’t work, the book wasn’t going anywhere. If I preferred that, it was always going to be there for me to go back to.

The movie doesn’t delve into any deep secrets of the universe, though it tries to be philosophical toward the end. It’s filled with visual spectacle and so many blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references, I think it’s destined to be one of the most freeze-framed movies ever. But it’s a Spielberg film targets at younger (not kids, but younger) audiences. You know what you’re going to get going in, and if you have that mindset, you won’t be disappointed. If you go in with a checklist from the book, then you’re setting yourself up for frustration. And I guess if that’s your goal, you won’t be disappointed in that case, either.

I do have a few honest complaints about the movie itself, separate from comparing it to the book. Mark Rylance as James Halliday didn’t work for me. I’m confident Rylance did exactly what Speilberg wanted, but the character is supposed to be a Steve Jobs-like character with a social awkwardness that became a recluse later in life. But he had no charisma, just the awkwardness. I can’t fathom how this character would become a household name that people would recognize like Jobs was. I think they just tipped the scales too far in that direction.

Similarly, I think Ben Mendelsohn’s villain, Sorrento, was very one-dimensional. He didn’t seem smart enough to be leading a corporate division, because he barely seemed competent enough to use the restroom without someone showing him how the door worked. It felt like a bit of a waste of a talented actor in a bit part that was actually a really important role.

T.J. Miller, on the other hand, was really amusing for a guy that never once appeared on screen. He was just voicing a digital thug in the film, but he was such a “gamer dumbass” type that it just worked perfectly. His character was engrossed in his virtual character, so much so that I imagine him to be the type that forgets he doesn’t really look like that when he’s in the real world.

On the hero side, the leads all did their jobs well. Nothing groundbreaking, but not really any stumbles, either. There’s a lot of story to be told and, even in nearly two and a half hours, there’s not a lot of time to focus on building the characters. This is one place the book has an advantage over the film. Told in the first person, the book lets us focus on Wade, to get to know him, his thoughts, and his motivations. But if they tried to be that centered in the film, the filmmakers would get crucified for making the other characters secondary. That’s part of the world we live in now.

Cline’s original book was a love-letter to all the things Cline loved as a kid, from the video games to the movies to the music to the pizza joints with a few coin-op machines in the back room. The movie is also a love-letter, this time to all the visual spectacle of the summer blockbusters that have come to define movies of a new generation. It’s different from the book, but that’s okay, because of one really big reason, in my estimation. As one of the screenwriters, the movie is still an Ernest Cline love-letter.