Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Mark Rylance, Ben Mendelsohn, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Simon Pegg
Released: March 29, 2018
Viewed in theaters: April 10, 2018
I will be spoiling both the movie AND the book, so you have been warned! And there are things that happen in the book that don't happen in the movie and vice versa.
I remember when the book by Ernest Cline came out in 2011 because I had a subscription to Entertainment Weekly and I first found about it when it was reviewed in that magazine. I thought the premise sounded interesting, about a teen living in the year 2045 who has an obsession with pop culture from the '80s. However, when I realized that most of the pop culture references were from video games, I decided this book wasn't for me since I knew I wouldn't get any of the references, no matter what decade they were from! Fast forward six years later when I saw a trailer for this movie. I was impressed it was directed by Steven Spielberg (imagine writing a book and having the movie adaptation being directed by SPIELBERG, yeah, I'm jealous!) and thought it looked visually interesting. However, I still wasn't interested in reading/seeing it, but then I decided to check out the book from the library and give it a shot. I really thought I would be bored reading it and wouldn't understand the references. Well, while I mostly didn't understand ALL the references, I ended up really enjoying it and had a lot of fun reading it. The premise of the book (and the movie) is that everybody is obsessed with this virtual world called the Oasis created by a man named James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and his friend Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) who were born in 1972 and have an obsession with '80s culture since they were teenagers then and that's when they discovered their love for all things film, video games, music, and anything pop culture. I should also point out that the author was born in 1972.
The Oasis is this virtual world where you can literally spend your entire day interacting with other people, going to school or work, and traveling to different places all without ever leaving your home. The only thing you still need the real world for is to eat, sleep, and use the bathroom. Naturally, there are a lot of rules in the Oasis and while they touch on some of them in the movie, it's much more thoroughly explained in the book. I think the reason why I enjoyed the book more than the movie is because of this. I feel like I would have been a bit confused if I had seen the movie without reading the book because it seems like you can do anything and go anywhere, but that's not necessarily true. There are levels and points you need to acquire before your avatar can go to certain places; do certain things.
Our protagonist is eighteen-year-old Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) who goes by the name Parzival in the Oasis. Everyone has an avatar they can control and give their own name and looks. Most of the time they are better looking versions of themselves in real life, but some are well known pop culture characters. In the book, he goes to school in the Oasis, but they skip this detail in the movie. I understand that they don't have time to show everything even if the movie is two hours and twenty minutes! Wade lives in Columbus, Ohio with his aunt and jerk boyfriend because his parents died when he was young. They live in "The Stacks" which are trailer homes stacked on top of one another to save room. Things are looking bleak in 2045 and that's why everyone escapes to the Oasis.
We find out that five years ago Halliday passed away, but left a message for everyone in the Oasis. He has left a series of clues to find keys and whoever finds all three keys will win his inheritance of 47 billion dollars and complete control of the Oasis. (Keep in mind Morrow is still alive, but he and Halliday had a falling out before his death). Everyone will have to go through a series of challenges based on their knowledge of pop culture, specifically '80s pop culture. Now the least believable thing about the book is a teenager from the 2040s being obsessed with the '80s. I understand that everyone in this world is obsessed with the '80s because it will help the win a crapload of money, but still. Teenagers today don't care about the '80s and why should they? (Even though the '80s IS an amazing decade!) Wade even mentions he's seen Blade Runner a ridiculous amount of times, like 37. Gimme a break. I've never seen any movie that amount of times! But whatever, you just have to go with it and enjoy the ride.
I actually thought the book was going to be ALL '80s references, and while that is the decade where most of the references come from, they also mention pop culture from different decades like The Iron Giant (which makes an appearance in the movie)) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (I assume they were talking about the Peter Jackson films, though I know there is an animated version from 1978...that would be hilarious is they were talking about those, but I'm pretty sure it was the Jackson ones). There's even a scene where the characters are discussing the Indiana Jones movies and how awful Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was. This made me chuckle since Steven Spielberg would end up directing the film adaptation of Ready Player One. I'm guessing that didn't hurt his feelings too much! The movie is just all about pop culture references, not necessarily those from the '80s.
Wade doesn't have any friends in the real world (except in the book he's friends with an old woman who lives in The Stacks who grew up in the '80s and she tells him stories of what that was like, but she's not in the movie), but he has a couple in the Oasis. There's Aech (Lena Waithe) and Artemis (excuse, me, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke)). I was spoiled that Lena Waithe played Aech in the real world, who is actually a male in the Oasis so I figured that was a twist in the book, or Spielberg wanted to make it a twist for the movie, but she does reveal herself to be an African-American woman who is playing as a caucasian male in the Oasis. Aech is very different in the movie because he's described as looking like your everyday high school student, but in the movie he's made to have the physique of The Hulk or The Thing from The Fantastic Four. Artemis plays Parzival's love interest and there's even a scene where he says, "I love you" even though he doesn't even know her in the real world and has never met her. It's pretty cringe-y. There's also two young Japanese boys named Daito and Sho who have nothing much to do in the movie and there's a huge plot in the book that is completely scrapped in the movie where the older one is killed by IOI, the evil corporation led by Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who will stop at nothing to obtain the keys and acquire the fortune and to be able to run the Oasis. These five characters are called the High Five (although that's only mentioned once in the movie) because they were the first five avatars to beat the first challenge and obtain the first key.
There are three challenges and this is where the movie and book deviate significantly because they are totally different. I can only assume they do this because of licensing rights and because it might be super boring watching someone play Joust against Anorak, the avatar of Halliday. (Even though he's dead, he's still able to access his avatar, but it's better explained in the book). In the movie, the first challenge is a car race (and Parzival drives the DeLorean from Back to the Future) which is a lot more visually fun and also incorporates a lot of pop culture references such as King Kong and the T-rex from Jurassic Park and they even pass a movie marquee which is featuring the newest Jack Slater movie, so that was a deep cut with The Last Action Hero reference!
In the book, even though it may take him more than one try, Parzival is able to beat the challenges because he has spent hours upon hours studying video games and movies and knows every move to make or every line from a movie that he's watched more than 30 times. (Has he seen every '80s movie that many times? That's a little ridiculous!) But in the movie, he gets his answer by going to a museum of Halliday's inner most thoughts where you can access any memory from his life. Don't ask me how that was done, but remember, this IS 2045 so a lot of technical advancements have been put into place to do that kind of thing, apparently. This is where Parzival gets a clue on how to win the first challenge and becomes the first person on the scoreboard.
The second challenge both deals with movies in both forms of media. In the book, all he has to do is play Matthew Broderick in War Games and recite all his lines and he'll win the key. You know, even with a move I've seen many times, I still don't think I would be able to remember every single line of the main character, but he states he's seen War Games several times because he's a nerd. I've seen War Games zero times. I've also seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail zero times which is the last challenge he has to beat in the book. There is mention of The Goonies which excited me but it's only one sentence and is not involved as a challenge, but just as something he does to get more points. There is also mention of several more video games which I have never heard of and I kept crossing my fingers we would get a Super Mario Bros. mention, but, alas, that never happens. He does play Pac-Man (finally! something I have heard of!) where he gets a special coin that will come in handy later on. The movie has them being in the world of The Shining and instead of acting out the entire movie (because that would be a bit much), they have to find Kira, the woman Halliday loved, but she ended up marrying Morrow, so you could say that had something to do with their falling out. I have never seen The Shining (no, thank you!), but I knew about the creepy twins. That was about the only reference from that movie I got. Aech had never seen The Shining either, so when he goes into room 237, everyone in my audience who was familiar with the movie, laughed knowingly.
There's a huge subplot of the book where Parzival gets captured by IOI on purpose in order to hack in their system and acquire some codes. They give this plot to Artemis in the movie. They also completely wipe away the plot where Morrow offers to help the High Five (well, four, at this point), who are all in danger from IOI (they've already killed the older Japanese boy and killed everyone living in The Stacks because they thought Wade was there, but he wasn't) and offers to fly them to his home in Oregon. He does not offer any help in the movie, but instead the High Five (who all conveniently live in the same city) end up together in the real world. Wade ends up meeting Samantha (Artemis) in the middle of the movie and I think this works better than in the book where he literally meets her for the first time on the penultimate page. It's pretty late when they meet each other face to face. However, while I like his interaction with Samantha better in the movie than in the book, I think his interaction with Helen (Aech) is better in the book. He is shocked at first to see that not only is Aech a woman, but she's also African-American, but he realizes it's still Aech and is very happy to meet her and you hear her story and why she chose her avatar. In the movie, she's just like, yep, this is me. Surprise!
The third key involves him having to enter a castle that's been blocked by the IOI. Parzival enlists a bunch of avatars to help them and a huge battle ensues. I had to go to the bathroom during this part, so I know I missed a lot of pop culture references with different characters fighting in the battle. I heard Chucky was there...seriously, who would want to make their avatar a murdering doll? And an ugly one at that? That is one sick individual. I looked at a website that listed all the pop culture references in the movie and I know I missed a lot. Not just the ones that went over my head, but also ones that I would be familiar with, but there are some that go by so fast that it's easy to miss them if you blink. I heard there was gremlins in this movie, but I totally missed them! There's also other famous pop culture cars in the first challenge that I didn't register seeing. This might actually be a better movie to rent or stream so you can pause your DVD or device or rewind if necessary. So this movie if a lot of fun if you want to see all of those.
The movie ends with Wade beating the last challenge, which is some early video games and everyone is happy. He gets a crapload of money and complete access to the Oasis and his first rule is that nobody will have access to the Oasis on Tuesday and Thursday so they can experience the real world. Insert eye roll here.
While the movie has some fun scenes, I would recommend the book over it. I just had more fun reading the book than I did seeing the movie. I think you have to be a real nerd to appreciate it.