Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Is Hollywood Ready for “Ready Player One”?

Original artwork by Ian Yandman Hook

When I read that Steven Spielberg is about to start shooting a screen adaptation of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, I felt obliged to check out the 2011 source novel. Normally I don’t spend much time reading science fiction, nor do I indulge in video-gaming. But the subject matter of my son’s big new theatre piece has convinced me to become slightly more knowledgeable about avatars and virtual-reality quests. And since I consider Spielberg one of our most masterful filmmakers, the projects he chooses are always of interest.

Despite the availability these days of sophisticated CGI effects, Ready Player One is not going to be easy to adapt for the screen. It’s a huge story, one that for quite a while didn’t entirely hold my interest because so much explanation was needed to set it in motion. Cline posits an era in the not-too-distant future when the daily lives of average citizens are so grim that they are only too happy to send most of their waking hours online. The first-person narrator, Wade Watts, is (of course) a computer genius, but one who lives in squalor in a miserable place called “the Stacks.” That’s why he camps out in a secret hiding place, from whence he is able to log into Oasis, an all-purpose on-line universe that provides him with schooling, entertainment, and much more.

 In the course of the novel Wade’s trusty avatar, Parzival, will embark on a fantastic quest into virtual outer-space to locate the mysterious keys that unlock the shadowy gates that will lead one lucky winner to claim the fabulous fortune of Oasis’s deceased founder, James Halliday. Along the way, Parzival will find allies, rivals, and a group of sophisticated thugs who are quite ready to create mayhem, either in the virtual world or the real one. There’s the usual disconnect between the avatars playing the game and the honest-to-goodness human beings who control them, which leads me to wonder how Spielberg plans to differentiate between two separate realities with interlocking sets of characters. (James Cameron did a brilliant job of achieving this with Avatar; I wonder if Spielberg has something similar in mind, or has devised his own solution.)

 Though, frankly, some of the solemnity of Parzival’s quest seems a bit silly to me, there’s another aspect to the book that has me tickled. We’re to understand that all of Oasis is a figment of James Halliday’s fertile imagination. And Halliday, it turns out, was obsessive about the Eighties, when he was young, frisky, and a binge consumer of popular culture. So some of Parzival’s quest-time is spent having to re-enact Eighties flicks like WarGames, or dodging monsters, the likes of Mechagodzilla, who lurch straight out of Japanese cinema. One planet in the Oasis virtual universe is build along the lines of the iconic Tyrell Building from Blade Runner, and Wade briefly takes a breather by flying to Planet Zemeckis and surmounting a small challenge that earns him a Flying DeLorean.

I enjoyed the outrageousness of all that, and can see how Spielberg would be intrigued and amused by the opportunity to dodge in and out of other people’s movies (legalities permitting). But, as a screenwriting instructor I can’t help wondering how he plans to manage the tone of a story that’s sometimes serious to the point of tragedy and sometimes totally goofy.

The book also introduced me to a Japanese term: hikiko mori. I find myself worrying about those poor souls who shun reality to withdraw into the fantasy world of their computers. In Ernest Cline’s dark future, I guess it can’t be helped.

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