Director: Steven Spielberg.
There comes a moment when something comes along that’s so great, it has to be shared with like minded people, like the World of Warcraft game left on the work’s freezer with a post-it note saying “Guy, you must play this!” Which lead to 5 years of intense gaming. Ernest Cline’s titular, award-winning book was one of these moments, urging a phone call from a friend to say nothing but demanding that I read it immediately.
I’ll shamefully admit, I don’t have the time to read as much as I would like, so normally most books that are bought, get shelved towards the end or worse, not even bought at all because I know I’ll probably never read them. But my friend was insistent, like it was a winning lottery ticket and that I would be fool not to. He didn’t have to explain much to set off my intrigue and since then I’ve read the book twice and have enforced the recommendation to many others.
Set in a dystopia world of a not-too-far future where a boundless virtual world out weighs the gloomy reality, allowing people the freedom to be whoever they want to be, hiding behind fully customisable avatars. A free oasis created by a genius geek god who passes away and leaves a quest in his wake, to find the keys to his kingdom, the ultimate Easter egg.
The magical essence of the book, is that it encompasses pretty much everything from 80’s and geek pop culture. TV Series, film, music, literature and of course, video games. It reminded me of when I use to play with my action figures and that the constraints of copyright and rules didn’t apply. I would have Action Force figures fighting along side Star Wars and Transformers and have Ninja Turtles getting involved in the fray with Thundercats and He-Man. The ultimate battleground which was only limited by your own imagination. This book brought that freedom back to life.
So it’s obvious I am a massive fan of Cline’s 2011 masterpiece having read it twice and, contrary to popular belief, I was fortunate to grow up in the very era Cline draws from. So when they announced that a film was in the pipeline, excitement and anticipation were my instant reactions, which were quickly followed by concerns and doubts. Who could direct? Who are they going to cast? Even the score?
I still place Spielberg as one of the greatest directors, and that isn’t a personal choice because I don’t love all of his films, especially his more recent catalog; but it’s a decision with some science behind it and when I heard he was going to be behind the camera I was actually torn. Yes, Spielberg’s own creations are mentioned and used in the novel, being very much a big influence on the book itself; but does he have the talent to pull off such a project? Especially whilst still making his Oscar nominated The Post; how could he have his whole heart invested at the same time? Maybe it will reflect on both his films? At that moment the only thing that made me keen about Spielberg being at the helm was that if there was one director who had the gumption and connections to push aside copyrights and trademarks, Spielberg is that man.
Then, it’s the casting. There’s always going to be that constant struggle with translating books into visual because each one of us will have their own interpretation and picking fairly unknown stars was probably the safe bet. Sheridan and Cooke are brilliant. Though I wasn’t keen on Rylance playing the geek god, Halliday, who appears to be Spielberg’s new best friend. But he actually does a grand job, bringing the socially awkward, genius trillionaire to life. Also, I was happy to see Pegg in here, I mean who else is better than Pop Culture advocate and ultimate geek, Simon Pegg to get a part. After all, he did co-write Spaced which is also mentioned in Cline’s masterpiece.
My next concern was the score, hearing John Williams would team up yet again with Spielberg which immediately flared up the same concerns as I had with Spielberg. Yes, it was entirely their creations, again Williams even being mentioned in the book but would we want something more digital? More videogamey? Though in the end Williams had to step aside for Spielberg’s other project, The Post and Alan Silvestri steps into the booth. Silvestri, himself coming from the same era and was the composer behind the forever recognisable Back To The Future and other films like Flight of the Navigator, Predator and The Abyss; but does he deliver? It’s certainly a score reminiscent of the time and though Spielberg urged for an original piece; and as a whole it is a stand alone score, there’s still little hints of iconic scores. You only have to listen to the track “Real World Consequences” and the knowing ear will pick up what I mean. Though this isn’t a criticism, it’s actually nice putting in those audible cues; it’s just I would have liked something more modern, like what Daft Punk did for TRON: Legacy or even Matthew Margeson’s work on Eddie The Eagle.
The rest of the soundtrack is really nothing more than a tease. The song selection is good, but for a story of this magnitude, there's too little of it. They use good opportunities yet miss out on so many more which would have got the audience going even more but maybe I’m asking too much, knowing the legal team must of had their offices full of other more important dealings. Maybe they had to sacrifice the time on the soundtrack to get the visuals right(s).
The effects and sequences are incredible, almost way too much for the eye to take in. With a lot of the film spending time in the Oasis, it reminded me of Avatar, but it really works here because it’s supposed to be inside a videogame. Wade, our hero’s avatar looks like a slimmer, younger Kevin Bacon, Samantha looking like Helena Bonham Carter’s younger sister and Sorrento, the nasty avatar looking like a beefed up clone of Alex Baldwin’s and John Hamm’s lovechild. But the set pieces and especially the race sequence are mind blowing.
There’s just so many nostalgic references in there, much like when you’re reading the book, you have those fleeting moments of your childhood flash before your eyes, but unlike the book, you can’t pause it to stare away and savour that memory. There’s so much, even watching it a second time round I was noticing characters I missed the first time, and there’s still more! We’re going to have to wait until it’s released on Blu-ray when we can watch the film frame by frame and pick the scenes apart spotting our heroes in the background.
It gave me goosebumps watching it, had me nudging my pals or burst out laughing or cheering every time something triggered a happy memory. As a whole, both Spielberg and Cline remind us all of what a film, and story is supposed to do; and that’s to transplant us away from reality and make us forget we’re watching a film or reading a book. You get so immersed you’re just there for the ride and forget everything else.
Like with all those 80’s classics, there’s some good and often touching lessons here, even if a little too cheesy at a couple of points. It still rings true and it hit me on an emotional level. It certainly pulls on the heartstrings on all the gamers and fans of the 80s pop culture.
But, the main question. Is it better than the book? And my answer is no; but it is equally good! What the book does, the film expands on! So, fans of the book are either going to be angry, (forget you) or absolutely love it! It keeps the core of the story very much intact but obviously shaves bits off here and there and there’s some noticeable changes to the plot elements, but it works. It’s like a different draft of Cline's work and so you get a double hit of nostalgia when watching the film. Read the book and you get a different set of hits. It’s like their imagination was allowed to run wild, Cline being heavily involved in the screenplay, he truly practises Halliday’s ideal of no rules and even doesn’t allow the constraints of his own story limit the film’s path.
There’s no doubt the pressure must have been on all of them to get this right and whilst it’s not prefect, it’s a damn good job, loaded with nostalgia that made me feel like a kid again; and urge me to play my consoles.
Running Time: 9
The Cast: 8
Job Description: 10
The Extra Bonus Point: 10 for bringing Cline's epic book to like in such brilliant fashion.