The year is 2045 and conditions on Earth have become so bad that instead of trying to fix things, people have given up and prefer to spend as much time as possible in The Oasis. Within this virtual wonderland, people can be anyone they want to be, and experience anything they desire. For most, this digital world is a far superior reality.
The film opens with an extensive narration by Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a young man living in the Ghetto trailer “Stacks” of Columbia, Ohio. Like his best friend Aech (Lena Waithe), Wade spends most of his time online searching for clues in a posthumous easter egg hunt created by the Oasis’ creator, James Halliday(Mark Rylance) Halliday’s will left control of the Oasis, now valued at over half a trillion dollars, to whomever solves his puzzles and locates the hidden Easter Egg. This massive prize has led some companies to devote entire divisions to cracking the hints and securing the egg.
Those unfamiliar with the book may be shocked at the blatant nostalgia porn that oozes from the various trailers. All these characters, vehicles, locations, and references do exist for a reason. Halliday spent most of his life in social solitary, but in his last days wanted to reach out in a way and share with others everything he enjoyed in life. He felt that only someone who could truly understand who he was, deserved control of the Oasis.
Conversely, those who are fans of the book, immediately demand to know how the movie compares to the source material! As can be expected with all movie adaptations, a lot has changed. There is so much detail, information, and backstory in Ernest Cline’s novel, that it occasionally borders on Encyclopedic, and that stuff, as compelling it is to read, doesn’t translate well to the screen. Hints of this are apparent during Wade’s long exposition at the beginning of the movie. Spielberg keeps the visuals interesting as we are subjected to a LOT of information, all necessary to understanding the narrative world and getting the story moving. Because of this, a lot of the content is simplified, and the Keys now provide the clue directly, instead of requiring an additional search for the gate they fit. As cool as it was to read about 3 long (video game) Joust matches against a D&D Demon, would you really want to sit through that in the theatre?
Almost all of these changes and simplifications from the book are great, and many could be considered improvements. In fact, my favorite sequence from the film is not in the book at all. (but clearly inspired by it) But there is a price to pay for taking an epic and reducing it to 150 minutes. The timeline is compressed, our heroes, the High Five live within miles of each other, and not enough time is spent on Wade’s character arc. All of this, although completely reasonable within the confines of a single film, tend to diminish the stakes at hand. We never see Wade at his worst. We never see the full extents the villains are willing to go. Sacrifices and betrayals are left out. In the end we are left with a very light film. It’s Spielberg at his most optimistic.
I believe no one besides Spielberg could have directed this film. There are wonderful moments that are so perfect that only Spielberg could have delivered. But I wonder how well he understands the story? Do you appreciate and understand nostalgia as much when you were involved in creating it originally? When things from our childhood pop up unexpectedly on screen in amazing ways, is it because he’s filling out a checklist of “I’m told people will like this thing?” He immediately recognized the story as being a modern version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, but instead of Charlie, he incorporated the Goonies. This may sound great, but the Goonies always worked better through the eyes of a child than an adult, especially the ending. It’s strange, instead of Goonies, maybe he should have taken more from IT, or Stand By Me? Perhaps just this once, Spielberg should have used a little more King?