Books to movies rarely seem to work. People end up loving one over the other. Well, guess what…me too!
(From my Goodreads review, 2012)
In the disintegrating world of 2044, Wade Watts, a hermit teenager, dedicates his life to discovering the online clues that could win him the ultimate prize…
The OASIS is the only place to be in the future. The world has fallen apart, and almost every aspect of humanity is pushed onto a massive online, virtual reality. Even schools and public services are in there – there’s a planet with nothing but schools, for instance. Interaction is through avatars. They can be ‘killed’ (more like a restart), but nobody really gets hurt in there. Not physically, anyway.
The man who designed this became the richest man on the planet, and when he dies, his fortune is left up for grabs for whoever can solve the puzzles he left behind, puzzles rooted in very, very obscure 1980s pop culture references.
I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons. I’m not particularly skilled at computer or arcade games, so the (80s) subculture that the author immerses us in is mostly lost on me. But luckily, he explains every reference as he goes along.
In fact, he seems just to drop references in just to explain them…they don’t really advance the plot much. There’s an example where Wade travels somewhere in a Back to the Future DeLorean with a Knight Rider and Ghostbusters add-ons. It’s never used again and not mentioned, so why do it?
In the movie “Signs” a character says: “…this stuff is just about a bunch of nerds who never had a girlfriend their whole lives. They make up secret codes and analyse Greek mythology and make secret societies where other guys who never had girlfriends can join in.”
That’s what the 80s subtext of the novel mostly felt like to me; obscure references that very few people would understand (or even care if they weren’t there). They’re just secret handshakes for the society the author moves in.
Fortunately, the main character is likable enough to keep you reading – you want this little underdog to win, especially against the corporate bullies who are willing to kill him and his friends. You want him to come out with the girl and the prize and some good friends. There are no real surprises when he does all three.
I have some grievances against the pop culture references. Where was Madonna? Where was Spielberg? Where was Tron? And one the author missed that I caught: Wade references Fantastic Voyage (1966)…why not Innerspace (1987)?
Also, since the references seemed to stretch back and forward decades a little, where was Potter World?
Wade calls his diary for keeping track of all the clues his Grail Diary, a reference to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s a nice metaphor, and it carries nicely through the book; as Jones discovers that the search for the Grail is the search for what’s important rather than an artefact, so does Wade discover that what’s important to him isn’t inside a computer, but back in the world of the real.
(Watched in 2019)
For a book I felt so frozen out of, the movie was very accessible. It’s one of those films where everything is thrown at the screen, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed by it, or lose a sense of where the characters were while all this was going on. Because of the nature of the film, you could freeze every shot and spend hours looking for all the 80s references, and still probably miss some of them. And a shout-out for the retro soundtrack, which is awesome.
None of the flashy effects or 80s references pulled me into the movie and made it stick with me, though. What hooked me was the portrayal of Halliday, the man who invented this virtual world. High marks to the actor playing him: He nailed social anxiety.
In the first scene where we get a glimpse of his personality, his only friend is walking out of his life. How does Halliday deal with this? By avoiding eye contact, by fidgeting and moving chairs around, by keep his voice low and his attitude passive. I watched that and said to my wife: That’s exactly what I’d do!
In a closing scene, Halliday explains – while fidgeting and playing with nothing – the he created the virtual world because he was terrified his whole life and couldn’t connect with any of the people in the real world. There’s a solid sense of his loneliness and isolation. Yeah, man. I hear you.
It was so refreshing that Halliday was played straight. This was just the way he was made. No one sneered at him, or laughed at him or looked at him weird because he wanted to go to a movie instead of dancing.
I liked that.