I’m well aware of the position I’m putting myself in when I tell you that I didn’t like Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One,” but I hope that my opening by saying this means you take me seriously when I also tell you that Steven Spielberg’s (“The Post”) adaptation of that novel is the most fun you’re liable to have at the movies this side of “Infinity War.” Where the original work drowns out what could have been a unique adventure under a flood of soulless ’80s references and thinly-written characters, Spielberg uses his talents at combining spectacle with humanity to actually craft a compelling story and take Cline’s work to places of genuine greatness. The combination of their talents doesn’t always work — the opening act is so packed with exposition, jargon and a rushed romance that it recalls any number of YA dystopian flicks — but when it clicks, it exceeds its source material more than any of us could have wished.
In no place is this more clear-cut than in the film’s message. Where the book paid mostly empty lip-service to the idea of life beyond pop culture, Spielberg actively practices what he preaches here. Film, television, video games — these things can provide an escape, but it’s the relationships that are built through them that are most important. The stronger characterization adds further credence to this idea, as do the scene-stealing performances from Olivia Cooke (“Thoroughbreds”) and a stupendously cast Mark Rylance (“Dunkirk”).
But the message will almost be beside the point for those who, unlike me, enjoyed Cline’s novel, so let me reassure you once again that “Ready Player One” is the very definition of “fun” from beginning to end. The action is as marvelously directed as fans of Spielberg would expect, with ludicrously complex tracking shots galore; a wildly over-the-top racing scene close to the beginning works as a showcase for the film’s gorgeous special effects as well as an introduction for the film’s characters and the limitless nature of their world. It’s deeply funny, and there’s an almost childish tone that works given how much the story deals with nostalgia.
Even the references, when they occur, work much better here than, say, dedicating an entire page to every ’80s-inspired modification you made to your DeLorean to prove how cool you are. That’s part of the benefit of film; adapted as visuals, there’s a quickness to them that allows you to appreciate the reference without halting the story. Even when the story is centered around a particular homage — an entire sequence is sculpted around an extended send-up to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” — there’s still a novelty to them. A similar sequence in the book has the main character recite line-for-line the entirety of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” reducing the lead of the book to a passive player in a much better story, so when in the adaptation, Spielberg actually allows his characters to interact with iconic set pieces of the Overlook Hotel and play a part, it works much better.
There’s even what seems to be a kind of self-aware commentary on the references themselves, as several of the antagonists, including Ben Mendelsohn’s (“Darkest Hour”) Nolan Sorrento, reduce themselves to regurgitating meaningless references in an attempt at pandering to their enemies. It’s played for laughs when taken at face value, but given the criticisms that Cline’s novel does much of the same thing, it’s an interesting dissection of “Ready Player One”’s lifeblood.
Given the insane talent of the man behind the camera and the popularity of the book, there probably wasn’t much reason to worry about “Ready Player One,” and yet the degree to which it works is still surprising. The best part of Ernest Cline’s book are preserved; the fun tone and sci-fi adventure are the foundation the movie is built upon. But Spielberg’s flourishes — his self-aware direction, smarter references and improved characterization — are what takes it to the next level.