Over the weekend at San Diego Comic-Con, Warner Bros released the first teaser trailer for Ready Player One, the Steven Spielberg film directed film based on the Ernest Cline book of the same name. For fans of the books, the trailer reads like a solid, faithful adaptation, with some of the referenced characters and icons being replaced with properties Warner Bros owns. For everyone else, Ready Player One plays out more like a live-action version of The Lego Movie.
To be clear, outside of the opening narration, the trailer is largely impenetrable. Actor Tye Sheridan, playing lead character Wade Watts, helpfully explains that everyone in the future spends their days in virtual reality, where they can be whoever and whatever they choose. The Oasis is a digital final frontier for everyone.
What comes after that is a trailer for References: The Movie. Action scenes with visual style, but no clear indication as to their purpose. It's all about seeing the easter eggs. There's Deathstroke and Freddy Krueger! Wow, it's the Iron Giant! That's the motorcycle from Akira and the DeLorean from Back to the Future! Even the bombastic soundtrack that comes after the monologue is a reference to "Pure Imagination" from the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
Like the trailers for Luc Besson's recent scifi action film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the teaser is here to make you go, "Wow, that's cool!" (Probably not the best place to go, as Valerian passed through its debut weekend with only $23.5 million at the box office.) Ready Player One's teaser is shiny, a travelogue to a place that the filmmakers hope you want to go. It's visually enjoyable and enticing. It also lacks deeper context and meaning.
In that way, it's perfect as a representation for Ready Player One, the novel.
Cline's book is heavy on the references to geek pop culture from the 80s and 90s. Wade Owen Watts is a young man who spends his days diving into the loves of his idol, Oasis creator James Halliday. Halliday was born in the early 70s, a child of that era, heavily based around gaming. He developed Oasis along with co-creator Ogden Morrow, the Wozniak to his Steve Jobs, and in the process he became rich.
The Willy Wonka musical reference? That's actually a reference to the book's plot. Halliday died, but he left the Easter Egg - yes, the book full of Easter Eggs and references has a MacGuffin called the Easter Egg - hidden deep within virtual world. Find it and you get Halliday's fortune. And the clues to finding it? All geek culture. Cline peppers the entire book with his personal loves in games, comics, movies, and more.
Ready Player One is a light, enjoyable novel. I liked it, though I digress it wasn't well-written, with lengthy divergences to reference things outside of the book itself. At the very least, many of the references were tied to the plot via Halliday's hobbies, something I could not say about Cline's second novel, Armada. (I reviewed Armada for USgamer back in the day.) The connection is made by being in on and enjoying the same references as the author, Wade, and Halliday.
Here's some excerpts, to give you an idea.
Descending the network of metal girders had always reminded me of old platform videogames like Donkey Kong or BurgerTime. I'd seized upon this idea a few years earlier when I coded my first Atari 2600 game (a gunter rite of passage, like a Jedi building h is first lightsaber). It was a Pitfall rip-off called The Stacks where you had to navigate through a vertical maze of trailers, collecting junk computers, snagging food-voucher power-ups, and avoiding meth addicts and pedophiles on your way to school. My game was a lot more fun than the real thing.
I sat in my stronghold, staring at the Jade Key and reciting the words etched into its spine, over and over, like a maddening mantra.
Continue your quest by taking the test.
Yes, but what test? What test was I supposed to take? The Kobayashi Maru? The Pepsi Challenge? Could the clue have been any more vague?
Inside were long rows of blue teleportation booths. Their shape and color always reminded me of Doctor Who's TARDIS.
"Ah," I said. "Good one. Let's see...The prize for the Earthworld contest was a Talisman of Penultimate Truth. It was solid gold and encrusted with diamonds. The kid who won it melted it down to pay for college, as I recall."
"Yeah, yeah," Aech prodded. "Quit stalling. What about the other two?"
"I'm not stalling. The Fireworld prize was the Chalice of Light, and the Waterworld prize was supposed to be the Crown of Life, but it was never awarded, due to the cancellation of the contest. Same goes for the Airworld prize, which was supposed to be a Philosopher's Stone."
Aech grinned and gave me a double high five, then added, "And if the contest hadn't been cancelled, the winners of the first four rounds would have competed for the grand prize, the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery."
I was eating some corn chips at the time, so I was using voice commands to operate the image-analysis software. I instructed it to demagnify the scan of the wrapper and center the image on my display. As I did this, it reminded me of a scene in Blade Runner, where Harrison Ford's character, Deckard, uses a similar voice-controlled scanner to analyze a photograph.
Blade Runner was referenced in the text of Anorak's Almanac no less than fourteen times. It had been one of Halliday's top ten all-time favorite films. And the film was based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, one of Halliday's favorite authors. For these reasons, I'd seen Blade Runner over four dozen times and had memorized every frame of the film and every line of dialogue.
As the Vonnegut streaked through hyperspace, I pulled the Director's Cut of Blade Runner up in a window on my display, then jumped ahead to review two scenes in particular.
The movie, released in 1982, is set in Los Angeles in the year 2019, in a sprawling, hyper-technological future that had never come to pass. The story follows a guy named Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford. Deckard works as a «blade runner», a special type of cop who hunts down and kills replicants - genetically engineered beings that are almost indistinguishable from real humans. In fact, replicants look and act so much like real humans that the only way a blade runner can spot one is by using a polygraph-like device called a Voight-Kampff machine to test them.
Continue your quest by taking the test.
Ready Player One does not surprise. Wade's character arc, if there's one at all, is a revelatory arc, not an evolutionary one. He doesn't really change over the course of the story; he's already awesome and everyone else just has to realize it. The ending is some moralizing about reality being all that matters, but that's contradicted heavily the entire rest of the book. Every move is telegraphed, every character beat is expected, many of the characters or paper-thin or in some cases, almost offensive. The villain is even a draconian corporation looking to control the game. It's not really about anything deeper. It's fun popcorn. Trying to dig deeper is only hoping for disappointment.
In that way, a big-budget Hollywood film might be the best way forward for Ready Player One. A visual buffet of everything you love in one place. Jumping from reference to reference with reckless abandon. The film could build upon the book's foundation. Film pacing means many of the more useless references will be shortened or excised for pacing purposes. Steven Spielberg is a master at many things in filmmaking, but most importantly, he's really good at imparting emotional weight. He might improve Ready Player One for the better.
Until the film releases though, the trailer is the book in under three minutes. It is an accurate representation of the novel; characters do cool things, things happen, and then it all ends, tugging your nostalgic heartstrings along the way. If any of the above sounds grating, you can watch the trailer, read a Wikipedia synopsis, and move on with your life. If not, I'm sure the teaser has already excited you for the possibilities.
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