As reported by Deadline, semi-well-known movie director Steven Spielberg — auteur of such cult art-house flicks as Jaws, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Saving Private Ryan — has signed on to direct the film version of Ernest Cline’s 2011 video-game dystopia novel Ready Player One. It’s a sublime pairing of director and source material for several reasons, not the least of which is that this marks, as far as I can tell, the first time in history that a book that mentions a particular filmmaker has been adapted for the screen by said filmmaker. And if it’s not the first time, such an event is at least exceedingly rare. I mean, I Googled it and asked two very knowledgeable people, and they couldn’t remember such a thing having happened before.
Ready Player One is set in a near-future, economically destitute, ecologically ruined United States. The only escape from the drab and dire existence of daily life is the OASIS, a fully realistic and massive online realm encompassing platforms for every conceivable human activity, with the exception of eating and excreting. There are virtual schools, virtual brothels (so, actually, you probably can excrete), immense public libraries, Halo-esque sci-fi battle worlds, Madden-on-acid sports arenas, hidden chat rooms, and magical dungeons. It’s the Internet, essentially, except you can actually go inside of it, just as we all dream of doing.
The OASIS is accessible via a specialized console about the size of a paperback. The user interacts with the OASIS via a 3-D visor that connects to a “haptic rig,” which gives the user tactile feedback from the virtual surroundings while one does whatever it is one does inside the OASIS. Get punched in the chest in the OASIS, and the corresponding microfibers of the user’s haptic suit compress in real time. There are varying models of haptic rigs, depending on the particular virtual undertaking and the user’s income level. Entry-level rigs for the poors are composed of a visor and a pair of gloves. Wealthier users could kit out in a full-body suit suspended by guide wires housed in a soundproofed room for maximum sensory immersion, or strap themselves into a fully adjustable haptic chair that produces the sensation of motion via robotic arms, which rotate the chair along four axes.
The OASIS was created by the mysterious and deceased weirdo/genius James Halliday — he’s like Bill Gates multiplied by Steve Jobs divided by Mr. Wizard — who concealed within its vast expanse an Easter egg. Whoever finds the egg, the creator’s will states, inherits not only Halliday’s enormous wealth and property, but also sole ownership and control of the OASIS itself. The OASIS is the world’s prime medium of economic activity, so searchers for the egg include multinational corporations as well as amateur “gunters” (egg hunters).
The clues to the egg’s location are based on Halliday’s (honestly incongruous) affinity for the pop culture of the 1980s. The novel’s prologue alone contains references to John Hughes, Heathers, the Commodore 64, and Dungeons & Dragons. If you find that even a little annoying — and I was slightly annoyed when I typed it — you probably will not like this book or the movie that will eventually spring, like leg warmers and a scrunchie, from its twee neon pages.1
I do not claim to have any kind of grasp of the complexities involved in securing media rights, but it seems to me that getting even 10 percent of the references in the novel onto the screen in any form more substantial than, like, someone saying, “I love the X-Men!” seems likely to prove impossible.
Perhaps you begin to see why Spielberg is the right director for this. It’s like he’s making a movie about a book about how great things were back when he had his fastball that plays like a feedback loop into the creative tastes that drove his childlike find-the-cute-alien-in-the-woods early period. Arguably no one hit bigger home runs in the 1980s than Steven Spielberg, and Ready Player One is I Love the ’80s: The Movie, but with spaceships and laser beams.
As I mentioned earlier, Spielberg is actually name-checked twice in Ready Player One. The first time, the protagonist, Wade (OASIS handle: Parzival), a teenager from a broken home who resides in a sprawling, multistory ghetto of stacked trailers, is arguing with his best friend, Aech, about the artistic merits of the 1985 Michelle Pfeiffer–turns-into-a-bird-at-dawn fantasy movie Ladyhawke. “Ladyhawke was directed by Richard Donner! The Goonies? Superman: The Movie? You’re saying that guy sucks,” screams Parzival. “I don’t care if Spielberg directed it,” Aech retorts. “It’s a chick flick disguised as a sword-and-sorcery picture.” Yes, this dialogue sucks. Yes, I liked this book.
The second time, Parzival is dumping exposition about the research he’s done into Halliday’s pop cultural tastes. After listing, among other movies, Star Wars, The Matrix, WarGames, and Indiana Jones,2 Parzival continues: “I absorbed the complete filmographies of each of his favorite directors. Cameron, Gilliam, Jackson, Fincher, Kubrick, Lucas, Spielberg, Del Toro, Tarantino. And, of course, Kevin Smith.” I hope Spielberg includes a scene in which our implacable hero, for the zillionth time, combs the metatextual subtleties of Jersey Girl like Slavoj Zizek high on Slurpees.
Every page is like this.
I will now quote from my August 30, 2012, review of Ready Player One, which I stand by, originally published on my old blog Amazon.com:
I’m in my 30’s, decently geeky, and love video games. Needless to say, I got pretty much every reference in this book, so that may color how much I enjoyed it. It’s a blast to read, the pacing is perfect, and it gets gaming and gaming culture about as right as anything — certainly any fiction — I’ve ever read. It’s a fun, fun book, but I can’t shake the feeling that it could’ve been better. A few quibbles:
– I could’ve used more of a balance between the real, dystopian world and the virtual OASIS world, especially in the first act. That would’ve really ratcheted up the tension and more subtly underlined the themes of escape, environmental decay, financial collapse, and loneliness.
– The entire book is pretty much one deus ex machina after another. It’s a credit to the creativity of the original idea and the flair with which it’s handled that I really didn’t care. Just saying.
– You can see the ending coming several miles off. Again, the story is so swashbuckling and fast that you really won’t care.
Minor critiques, but if you like pop-culture, sci-fi, the 80’s, and video games then you will burn through this book in about two days.
Ready Player One is a highly imperfect book that I nevertheless thought was fun, and that’s exactly what I expect the movie to be, whenever it finally comes out. No release date is set yet for Steven Spielberg telling you how awesome Steven Spielberg was in the ’80s.