Why does everyone hate Spielberg's 'Ready Player One' before they’ve even seen it?

Sam Ashurst

There’s no getting away from it, there’s a lot of negativity online towards Steven Spielberg’s next movie, Ready Player One.

The online backlash against the film is becoming so intense that a backlash against the backlash has started to kick in – it’s never a good sign for a studio trying to build positive buzz for their upcoming blockbuster when people feel the need to defend it from vocal armies of critics.

We’re with you, Drew. But what has gone wrong? Why are people piling on Ready Player One like it’s the next DC Universe movie? You know, apart from the fact it features Harley Quinn and Joker?

We’re glad you asked, we’ve got a couple of theories.

Strap on your Power Glove, pull on your proton pack, stick on your VR shades, and brace yourself for a complete guide to why everyone hates the new Spielberg movie before they’ve even watched it.

The source material

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline seemed like a fun read in 2011, but there’s a pretty large section of critics who absolutely hate it. Spielberg’s cinematic adaptation has seen a whole bunch of negative opinion pieces about the book surfacing on the internet, all at once.

“I hate Ready Player One, the inexplicably popular and critically acclaimed sci-fi novel by Ernest Cline. Every page of the book was a torturous combination of ineptitude and smarm that made what should have been a breezy read an agonising experience,” Pajiba’s Kayleigh Donaldson says in a piece titled ‘Ready Player One is everything wrong with geek culture.’ 

“Ready Player One embodies some of the worst qualities of modern nerd culture. It’s a fantasy in which the hero is rewarded and praised for alienating themselves from the real world and dedicating an inordinate amount of time to absorbing pop culture. And not just any pop culture, but the very specific brand of pop culture that Cline himself is a fan of,” AV Club’s Dan Neilan agrees, in a piece headlined ‘Here’s a good primer if you’re ready to hate Ready Player One.’

That’s just a couple of examples, but there’s plenty more where that came from. The weird thing is, none of these negative takes surfaced when the book was actually out. Here’s what Pajiba said about the book in 2012.

“As a nerd from way back, I love the references (no, more than that, the open love letters) to 80-90s culture- it is truly nostalgia porn- featuring D&D, Rush, Voltron, Star Wars, Firefly, Blade Runner, and the list goes on. It is particularly fun because these characters fully embrace the purest forms of the culture, without the other pesky real-world problems of that era (particularly the Cold War and bad hair). If you’re not into all the gaming/music/film homage, this book is still a good frolic, but to truly fall into it, harness your inner nerd and get your geek on.”

This take is more typical of the hugely positive reviews Cline’s novel received on its release, reviews (and sales) that led to major deals for Cline’s second, and third books (the author received seven-figure cheques for both).

But pop culture moves fast, and what seemed harmless seven years ago is toxic in 2018. Lines that went unnoticed in 2011 are (rightly) under the microscope in 2018.

This rising tide of negative articles about the book will have contributed to the general bad vibe surrounding the film, but that’s not the only reason people are rejecting Ready Player One.

The marketing

We’re going to be honest here, the Ready Player One marketing hasn’t been great, beginning with the bizarre teaser poster, which seemed to suggest our hero had one massive leg.

But whether Warner Brothers treated Ready Player One like a superhero movie we’re all familiar with via individual character posters (which only highlighted how bad the film’s designs are), or tried to tap into the book’s nostalgia by photoshopping those characters into ads for iconic movies (which just annoyed people) it’s been one bad decision after another.

And don’t get us started on the trailers, which have ranged from cheesy (that ‘Jump’ cover!) to borderline incomprehensible (why is the famously anti-war Iron Giant involved in a massive battle? Who cares!)

What we’ve seen so far basically looks like a mash-up between AI and Wreck-It-Ralph, a film literally no-one wants to see.

The casting

We get it Steve, you like Mark Rylance. So do we, he’s one of the greatest living actors – but is he really the best person to play OASIS creator / charismatic weirdo hermit James Donovan Halliday?

Spielberg was rumoured to be trying to tempt Gene Wilder out of retirement to play the character at one point, a far better fit.

As for Ready Player One’s lead, Tye Sheridan – we hope he spends the majority of the movie in a fat suit, because he’s supposed to be an out-of-shape nerd who’s spent his whole life online, not a jock who looks like he spends more time at the gym than on his Atari Jaguar. As insanely talented as this cast is, no-one feels especially right for their roles.

Obviously, no-one’s seen the film yet, so there’s a chance everyone works in a way that hasn’t been demonstrated in the trailers, but in terms of building buzz, having an actual movie star in the mix would probably have helped.

Then there’s the T.J. Miller situation (he’s yet to pop up in any of the marketing). Bad press around the former star of a nerd-culture TV show (HBO’s superb Silicon Valley) who’s been accused of inappropriate behaviour seems to encapsulate what’s gone wrong with this project – what seemed like a safe bet two years ago is turning into a liability.

Licensing issues

Even taking into account some of the above, if Steven Spielberg had been able to faithfully adapt the book, it still could have been the biggest film of all time.

If the first trailer had featured Ash from the Evil Dead fist-bumping Mad Max after lining up alongside Princess Leia, Godzilla and the original Ghostbusters while TIE fighters swoop overhead, there’s a chance people would have been a little bit more excited about the movie.

But complex licensing issues have given the film the air of compromise, with a whole bunch of comparatively second-tier characters Warner Brothers do have access to – people from Overwatch, Master Chief, Iron Giant – popping up to replace far larger icons.

This aspect dials down the book’s biggest selling point, making the whole enterprise feel like one of those subscription-deal nerd crates that shove a bunch of slightly lame licensed products into a box, including so much stuff that you won’t notice how cheap most of it is.

Still, we’re hoping that – against all the odds – Spielberg has made another classic, one that’ll prove everyone wrong.

But, to paraphrase Star Wars (which is a very Ready Player One thing to do), after examining the evidence, we’ve got a very bad feeling about this.

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