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I’m reviewing the film from the perspective of a VR professional and someone who has read the book several times. You know what? It’s a good movie. The audience score on Rotten Tomatoes (81% last I checked) seems about right. I think that this is as good an adaptation of Ready Player One as could reasonably be expected. Is it perfect? No, but I think the choices that were made in adapting the book all make sense.

If you are a purist when it comes to adaptations, you may be disappointed that the challenges faced by the gunters have changed dramatically in the film. It seems that this was driven by content licensing restrictions: the credits have three screen-fulls of licensing credits, and most of the major references are to Warner Bros. properties because it was probably easier to get permission. But the upshot is that if you are familiar with the book, you will be able to enjoy the film without foreknowledge of every story beat. The downside is that the solutions to the puzzles in the film are much simpler and easier to come by than they were in the book, occasionally making the characters’ heroic journey seem a little too easy; the upside is that Spielberg is just barely able to avoid running the film aground on shoals of expository dialog.

The book was criticized for its endless exposition, particularly the long lists of 80’s properties that main character Wade Watts (aka Parzival) had to sift through and memorize in his quest. The movie has no real choice but to include a lot of exposition, carefully alternating between voice over, dialog, a frantic research room full of evil megacorp IOI’s geeky “Oologists” and holographic recordings. In the end I think it did a masterful job of ensuring that viewers can follow along without being familiar with every reference the movie makes.

That it takes the time to do so will probably frustrate some viewers and certainly shoves aside a lot of interesting ideas from the book about virtual reality in the interest of keeping the run time manageable. However, fitting them in would have required cutting the action down, which would probably make the film a tough sell, or making the movie longer, and folks, it’s definitely long enough.

A positive change from the book is that Parzival’s friends, especially Art3mis and Aech, play a bigger role. This does some damage to the character of Wade Watts because it leaves him with even less screen time for character development, but it’s probably a good thing for virtual reality as an industry that we aren’t subjected to his sojourn as a hermit in the book wherein he never leaves his fortress-like apartment for months. At the same time, the geography is nonsensically compressed, with all of the major characters ending up in Columbus, Ohio at the outset. This enables the crew to interact in real life for more of the film and some parallel action sequences, which definitely helps with the film’s pacing. So I’m willing to accept the trade off.

The decision to render the avatars in a slightly cartoony style is interesting. It’s definitely an attempt to avoid the uncanny valley, and I think it mostly works, at least with love interest Art3mis and Wade Watt’s Parzival. I did not find myself constantly taken out of the film by the slightly imperfect digital characters the way I have in recent Star Wars films. I think Art3mis’ really wide set eyes are slightly off-putting though; I could never quite see her as sexy the way Parzival does. It’s also interesting that the film suggests perfectly photorealistic, expressive avatars are possible (by liberally mixing in real world footage), but that most people by choice are going with something a lot more cartoony.

Less successful are the avatars of the bad guys, which are intentionally funny and I think have a tendency to undermine their status as a threat. In fact, the movie dials back on the book’s stakes and violence across the board, which makes it pretty kid-friendly (as long as they aren’t easily terrified by a PG-13 horror-movie sequence). Aside from cuts and bruises and a horror gag, the film is completely bloodless. Antagonist Nolan Sorrento is pretty squeamish about real world violence though he doesn’t mind ordering up some robot-delivered terrorism. The problem with all this is that adults like myself who have grown accustomed to the high-stakes violent delights of streaming television will find the action sequences rather dull. As with previous video game inspired films, it’s a little difficult to get involved in a big battle when nobody can really get hurt, as if you are watching someone else play. Fortunately we now live in a world where watching other people play video games is a big business, and it gave Spielberg a model: frequently cutting away to the hilarious reactions of real world people reacting to their VR experience. It is a good approximation of how people really do react to VR, and it’s probably the detail in the film that will be most likely to drive viewers to give virtual reality a spin after leaving the theater.

Sorrento himself is drawn pretty thinly in the film. His dream is simply to add advertising to the Oasis, and he has a great line in the film about it that got a big laugh in my screening.

The movie’s VR technology is represented fairly closely to how we experience it today. Wade Watts uses an omnidirectional treadmill that looks like or may actually be an Infinadeck prototype. Less well equipped homeless users on the street just run around blindly, ignoring nearby car chases. Users wear a face tracking apparatus around their neck and haptic gloves. Some users opt for full-body haptics, which are advertised as providing an edge in situational awareness when battling other users in death matches (here is what such a device looks like today, integrated with the High Fidelity metaverse), but by actually causing pain to the user seems to hurt more than help in combat. The headsets by and large appear to be decorated ski goggles. They are semitransparent, but to the user they block out the real world completely, except for the headsets worn by the sixers (Sorrento’s minions), which are open on the bottom allowing the user to see out underneath the visor. The semi-transparency and bidirectional screen allows characters to peer into the face of someone in VR to see what they are looking at, since none of the OASIS terminals have an external monitor. I suspect this particular design element was motivated by the desire to let actors see the film set and interact with the director without constantly taking the goggles on and off. Augmented reality goggles don’t exist in this world. The poor don’t care about the real world; the rich have holograms that project magically in mid air.

One area that I felt the film could have done better was in the score. Alan Silvestri’s score is certainly competent, with a lot of musical references to classic scores mixed in, including Silvestri’s own Back to the Future, but the beautiful, exciting “Pure Imagination” theme from the trailers is entirely absent and not replaced by a strong main theme. That may be the film in a nutshell. It draws so much on the past that in some ways it fails to assert itself strongly enough. It does seem that even in recent collaborations with John Williams, Spielberg has shied away from instantly hummable main themes. Even the more memorable recent scores have had a subtlety that requires multiple listens to tease out. But for a return to old school blockbusters, I really think they should have looked to create at least one strong leitmotif for the film. They had one in the trailers and since it itself was a reference to a classic film it would have been perfect. A very strange decision indeed. (“The Oasis”, the first track in the score that accompanies a montage of the activities one can experience in virtual reality, is nice, but it’s an “ethnic-sounding” piece that never seems to find its way into the rest of the score, and after several listens I couldn’t hum it for you. The main title likewise is beautifully orchestrated, sounding like a cross between Toy Story and the Star Wars Episode IV Medal Ceremony, but just isn’t memorable.)

In the end this film turned out better than I hoped. I think it will do the job of introducing many more people to virtual reality, and convince many more people to try virtual reality for themselves. I think it will be effective at moving virtual reality headsets this holiday season. Will the film be a smash at the box office and a new classic? I think it will do fine in the long run, but not break any records. It’s definitely one of the best movies about virtual reality that have ever been made, although admittedly it’s not the most illustrious group besides perhaps The Matrix.

Ian Hamilton's Review
I went to see Ready Player One with Ian Hamilton; here’s his take.