Thomas’s review published on Letterboxd:
I have read Ernest Cline's "pop culture Odyssey" Ready Player One three times. I loved it when I was 13, liked it when I was 14, and disliked it when I was 16.
The book uses 80s pop culture references as a gimmick to rest on because nothing else is incredible. The prose is laughable, the writing is average at best and embarassing at worst, the characters are flat, and the plot structure has been done to death. Despite its numerous problems, I still find it a vaguely enjoyable read because it's fairly short, fast-paced, and most set-pieces are pretty good.
I bring all this up so you know what the book is like and so you know what I think of the source material. I thought it was a story that would work really well on screen and I was fairly excited for this adaptation considering Spielberg would be directing it!
Sadly, the movie is somehow worse than the novel. I think for all of the novel's faults it still does a good job crafting a believable world, likable characters, and an easy to follow plot with lots of twists and turns; it's a piece of easy-to-consume pulp fiction. The film adaptation ditches most of this, instead focusing on delivering a visual spectacle that, while clearly big-budget, feels fairly hollow.
Spielberg's take on the novel is more of reboot of the source material than an adaptation. It takes the same characters and similar plot elements, but has completely different contexts and situations. This results in some problems that really broke the immersion for me. The first big challenge of the film is a race that appears impossible to win; no matter how close you get to the end you always die. People have been trying to win this race for like 5 YEARS and haven't managed to crack the code. Surely the solution is something really obscure, right? Nope, it's literally just drive backwards and you win. You expect me to believe that after 5 YEARS no one thought to do that? I don't want to keep comparing it to the book, but the book didn't have these problems. No one solved the first challenge because it was on an obscure planet and was difficult to find. It wasn't literally the first thing a normal person would try after failing it dozens of times before.
There's also a big problem with the characters because they don't really have anything for the audience to latch onto. Outside of being the protagonist and a typical nerd, what traits does Wade have? Nothing, he's a blank slate. All the other characters are like this and there's no dimension to anyone. This ultimately boils down to lack of time spent on character development.
The plot sees a similar lack of development. Key plot points are rushed through and not given time to breathe. The romance isn't even what I'd call by-the-numbers because there's not much to it. Wade sees hot girl. Wade likes hot girl. They love each other for some reason, I guess? The world doesn't feel real and I never quite understood the logic of the Oasis. Why can a character do this, but not this? Why doesn't this big corporation have this weapon? What does that thing do? Was that set-up earlier? Did I miss something? It constantly felt like the movie was missing scenes and that there was initially a longer cut that fleshed things out.
The writing is consistently pretty weak. Bar a couple of funny jokes (kegel exercises), I feel the writing was pretty cringe-inducing. The same faux-emotional speeches, the same awkward and forced humor, and the same generic dialogue I've heard delivered better in other films a million times before.
Surprisingly, I think the movie is quite strong visually. I say surprisingly because I hated how the movie looked in the trailers, but I think the style works quite well here. It's an interesting blend of real-life and an animated movie that looks great because of the high production values.
Ready Player One could have been a really refreshing adaptation; especially because it adopts the characters and feel of the novel as opposed to being a rote retelling. However, it feels like a bloated, messy, corporate product that I'm sure general audiences will eat up. Unlike what many others think, the heart of Ready Player One's issues is not the reliance on nostalgia, but the abandonment of solid storytelling. Ready Player One is an unmitigated disaster and is all the more disappointing considering the talent behind the scenes.