I’m a nerd. That kinda really goes without saying. Spend five minutes on my blog and you’ll see me talking about Firefly, giant robots, The Lord of The Rings, comic books, Jacques the Fatalist, and looking at video games through a surprisingly feminist lens. I really enjoy this stuff.
And over the years nerd culture has gotten more mainstream. Superhero shirts are in these days and Star Wars is cool again. It’s pretty neat to these things that used be kinda niche getting brought into the limelight, with the praise and big budgets that follow.
So nerdy stuff is in, and the cherry on the sundae is Steven Spielberg making a movie based on a very nerdy book: Ready Player One.
(Yep, this is it, the post on Ready Player One)
Preface: I first read the book a couple years ago and I really enjoyed it. There’s a chapter about getting a perfect score in Ms. Pac-Man which, as someone who makes a beeline for the Ms. Pac-Man cabinet in an arcade, was a lotta fun to see in a book; it spoke my language. Now, sure, author Ernest Cline has a tendency to cross the line from enthusing to over-explaining. And his handing of his female characters does leave a lot to be desired given that it’s 2018. And, yes, it borders on a self-insert fic with its nerdy fantasy fulfillment.
But with all its flaws, there are some great things in it. This is a book that sees value in the digital. Much of the book takes place in the OASIS, a virtual world everyone can log in to and play games and live life. Experiences in the OASIS were treated as being real and worthwhile, which as anyone who’s gone deep into a video game can go, is how it feels (I don’t remember mashing buttons when I look back on games, rather I beat that Thunderjaw in Horizon Zero Dawn, I assembled a crew to stop the Collectors in Mass Effect 2). It’s unusual to see a book take what’s essentially a video game so 'seriously,' in that the virtual stakes matter. Adding to that, here was a story that treated online friendships as being as important as real life ones. Unlike other depictions of nerdom (and really, a lotta stories) which tend to demean them, this one valorized these relationships. And as someone who’s made some of his closest friends online, it’s something I really liked about it.
So the movie adaptation gets announced and people start paying a lot more attention to the book and its flaws came under scrutiny. As well they should, because there’s no excuse for poorly written women and bad prose can always be better. But then there’s the criticism where Ready Player One is compared to The Big Bang Theory. And that’s, well, wrong.
The Big Bang Theory came about before nerd culture was hip and the central joke of the show was that those nerds were dorky. I watched — and liked — the show at first for its references but over time grew tired of it and, after a while, insulted. This was a show that was laughing at me and folks like me, not with me. Yes, they make deep cuts and go the distance to get some things in, but ultimately it’s not a show that makes nerds good joke fodder, but not someone you’d like to be. Halo nights were seen as a dumb alternative to going out, not a really fun thing to do. Ready Player One does the opposite: It makes being the biggest nerd a hero-worthy quality. We don’t enjoy reading about Wade because his situation makes him the butt of a joke, we wanna be him.
Enter the movie. The adaptation improves on the book’s flaws; pacing is better, less expo-speak, the love interest Art3mis is both better and a little worse. And dear god it’s nerdy. A bunch of Master Chiefs from Halo rush into a battle where overhead flies in flipping Serenity and then a FRICKING GUNDAM jumps out of her hold to fight a certain giant Kaiju. But what’s so wonderful about Ready Player One — and Spielberg’s direction — is how much the movies loves its subject matter. The Spartans’ guns have the exact right sound effect when they fire (and when the needler gun shows up, same!); and the pose and movements of the Gundam feel lifted from the anime. The movie doesn’t just throw the images around, it wants to get them right. And it’s so freaking satisfying. It’s much more than just lip-service.
The nerds in Ready Player One — and that’s all the main characters except the villain (which is a statement in itself) — are cool. They’re the ones who can do stuff and, more importantly, they have fun. Art3mis teases Parzival with a chestbuster puppet, which, dorky as it is, feels real. It’s not funny because lol, Alien reference; it’s funny because it’s a gag for the characters too. The movie celebrates being a nerd.
The movie’s not all nerdy jokes, though. Yes, it’s got more nerdy references than you can shake a stick at (Hadouken! Adventure!), but it’s got a lot of heart and it’s really cute. The movie dispenses with a lot of the technicality from the book and zeroes in on a really fun, dare I say it: '80s-esque adventure story. Sure, it’s got its problems, but at the end of the day I was so enchanted by it that I stopped caring. Without the references, it’d be fun enough, but with them all, and how they’re treated, it really feels like a celebration.
Plus, Aech’s homemade Iron Giant is referred to as a MOC, which is a term you usually only hear in the LEGO fandom. But now it’s there in a movie. And that’s really freaking cool.