Friday, April 13, 2018

Ready Player One

G and I went to see the film of "Ready Player One" on Monday - LC and I had hoped to go together, but the timing with Funsize didn't really work out. As I mentioned on the blog, I had read the book last month, so I was curious to see how they'd translated it to film. I was also somewhat doubtful - with the book fresh in my mind, and given that the book is always * better, how would the film stack up?

* Not always - the actual rule is that the first version is always better. But since, these days, I'm much more likely to see a film that has been adapted from a book, rather than reading the book of the film, that effectively means the book is better. Anyway...

I didn't like RP1.

From here on out there are major spoilers for both the book and the film. So, if you want to avoid them, skip the rest of this post - there's nothing at the end to come back to!

The truth is that the book of RP1 is basically a piece of lightweight fluff, with an extremely basic plot. The only real reason it is so well regarded is that 80's nostalgia is big right now, and the book wallows unashamedly in it. And that's fair enough - there's a place for lightweight fluff, and there's a good reason that particular plot is retold again and again. And there were a couple of really quite clever moments... in addition to some quite lame ones.

In theory, the film version should be much the same. Indeed, they took the wise step of replacing most of the geek references from the book with other geek references in the film. Which means that it's fundamentally the same, but should also be different enough to stand on its own.

Unfortunately, it really felt to me like all the things they'd changed were for the worse, and all the things they kept were weaknesses in the book. Mostly, then, it made me nostalgic for other, better films - and knowing that I have many of those films on DVD, and many of the others are shown fairly regularly on TV, I'm left wondering why bother with RP1 - just watch those other films instead!

The problems start pretty much right away. One of the big changes between the book and the film, at least in gamer circles, was the replacement of the "Tomb of Horrors" with an unwinnable race. On the face of it, that's wise, since the book both gets the Tomb wrong and then has the protagonist play against Acererack at "Joust" which is, frankly, lame. So switching to something more cinematic and being able to introduce all the characters very quickly should be a good thing.


One of the few genuinely clever parts of the book is the placement of the Tomb on the school-planet of Ludus. Which is a Latin pun, but also shows one of Halliday's key values - you don't need money to win at his quest.

Switching to the unwinnable race removes that. Suddenly, you do need money, for vehicles, fuel, etc, in order to meaningfully compete.

Unfortunately, it also makes everyone in the setting an idiot. The notion, in the book, that nobody found the Tomb in five years of searching is a stretch, but it's just about feasible - it's hidden in plain sight, but somewhere nobody would really think to look.

But faced with an unwinnable race, coded by someone who is known to have a great delight in Easter Eggs, and in five whole years of searching, we're expected to believe that nobody thought to look for secret doors?

Hell, there's a real good chance that somebody's grandma would find that one entirely by accident!

But, okay, I guess.

Then we come to the next problems in the film: the supporting cast. Specifically, Art3mis and Aech. In the book, these are very much peers of our hero. Indeed, both are actually much more established Gunters than Parzival - if anything, Aech is the mentor figure, while Art3mis is actually better at it all than Parzival, but has missed one lucky guess.

In the film, Art3mis is introduced almost immediately as needing Parzival to rescue her. Then, when they decamp to Aech's workshop, he proceeds to inflict on her a test for "fake geek girls" (where the supposed geek girl must prove her credentials by recognising each and every reference the gatekeeper can muster - and yes, it's exactly as offensive as that sounds). Why they thought that was a good idea to include, I'm not sure.

Aech, meanwhile, is recast mostly as comic relief, and notably in the middle section of the film. On the face of it, this section is really good, transporting the characters into "The Shining". It's really well done, except for one thing - we're supposed to accept that Aech has never seen the film (because he "doesn't like scary movies"). When pretty much the sole qualification to be a Gunter is to immerse yourself in the culture loved by Halliday, and when that's one of his top films, that rather negates Aech's claim to competence.

Most of the rest of that middle section is absolutely fine - sure, they bring together the "High Five" in the real world rather more quickly than in the book, but that's fairly harmless. And, frankly, they should have killed off Daito (as in the book), as again that was one of the few things that gave it any weight. Oh well.

One other big change to the film is the means by which Parzival comes by his Extra Life. In the book, he stumbles on another Easter Egg, 'wastes' quite a lot of time on what seems a red herring, and so comes by a priceless artifact. In the film, he is basically given the Extra Life on a whim by another character... just because. But, I guess, in a 2 hour 20 minute film they can't include everything.

But then we come to the end, where it all proceeds to fall apart.

In another change from the book, Art3mis is captured by the enemy and sent to one of their "Loyaly Centres" (because, of course, the female character is the one who should be captured and need a rescue). The bad guys then proceed to show their massive incompetence - they put her to work inside the impregnable shield. For the main reason that if they didn't, the plot would come to a screaming halt.

So, of course, the heroes get Art3mis out of her prison, but she stays within the Matrix in order to bring down the shield. The bad guys, realising that she must still be inside, proceed to run around desperately trying to locate her. You'd think they'd have mechanisms to determine which of their rigs is currently using her unique login ID, or at the very least a mechanism to lock her out of the system, or something. (Also, see below...)

While Art3mis is busy bringing down the shield, Parzival and the others whistle up an army. In the book, this takes some time - they make the announcement, set a date, and wait to see who shows up. In the film, Parzival makes his speech and the army shows up seconds later. This highlights something really quite important - it takes very little time to get around in that setting.

So, they have the big fight. It's standard stuff these days - a mess of CGI fighting it out, with very little ability to actually see what's going on. It's all very pretty, but mostly just a waste of time. Especially since we've seen it all before.

Anyway, the good guys win, leading to the bad guys using their Ultimate Weapon - a bomb that kills all avatars in Sector 14. Except Parzival, of course, since he has the Extra Life. This therefore gives him a free run to the final challenge, and since he knows how to solve it, he can do so in a few minutes.


For those few minutes, he has to stand right there out in the open. And as we've just discussed, it takes little to no time to travel to his location. So it's a matter of a few seconds of one of the bad guys' reserve forces to go there and shoot his avatar dead. And the bad guys win.

(The book addresses this point - when you engage with the final challenge, you get shunted into a pocket dimension where you can't be interfered with. So Parzival gets a few minutes' head start, but can't be stopped by a simple bullet. The film omits this, to its cost.)

Anyway, our bad guys don't bother with any of that. Instead, they rush around in the real world trying to stop our heroes. Which is nicely cinematic but hugely inefficient. Especially as they've been shown to have drones that are quite capable of delivering an explosive package. So it would be nice and easy for them to find the van, drop off some explosives. And the bad guys win.

Anyway, they don't do that. Instead, they get themselves defeated, their agent gets himself arrested, and our heroes win the game. Yay!

Except, again...

When Art3mis was imprisoned in the "Loyalty Centre", she wasn't being detailed illegally. Instead, she had been assessed as owing the company some thousands of dollars that she needed to work off. And while working it off, she would be charged for any failure to do her job, any damage to company equipment, and pretty much anything else they felt like charging her for. And, indeed, they company had been shown to be utter bastards about that - indeed, that was exactly what they had done to her father.

Now, Art3mis wasn't an observer in the final battle; she was very much an active participant. And, indeed, she triggered the battle by disabling a priceless one-use artifact.

So, being utter bastards, and given that they had just lost the contest directly as a result of the actions of someone who (a) has just been given a fifth of the prize and (b) who represents significant leverage on the other four winners, the bad guys would surely not simply take that lying down. Sure, a couple of their agents had just been arrested, but corporations have rogue employees all the time, of course, so they can be easily disavowed.

Our bad guys, therefore, should just levy absurd charges to Art3mis' account, potentially charging her for everything that was lost in the final battle, including the priceless one-use artifact. At the very least, that gives them a 20% control in the system; most likely, it leads to the other winners buying her out. And the bad guys win.

The upshot of all this, I'm afraid, was that I was unimpressed.

Ultimately, the film is very pretty, but it's also pretty dull - a very basic plot, very thin characters, and a requirement that the bad guys make really bad mistakes at key times just left me cold. It reminded me too much of better films, and didn't have enough in itself for me to recommend it. Which is a shame, though maybe something I should have expected.

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