Traditionally, when you see an adaptation of a book, you have to take some kind of stance on which was better, or you’re just no kind of a commentator at all. Sue me. I tried to read the book, and kind of ran out of energy by the time Wade gets the first key. It’s not that it’s a bad book; it’s just that it wasn’t good enough for me to stick with it. There’s no way that I can work up an interest in pop culture trivia and computer games for their own sake. And Ernest Cline doesn’t have much of a style. I found his downbeat slow-motion apocalypse US all too believable. I liked the fact that Wade was fat. What I didn’t really like was Wade. And when you’re not really that fussed about the narrator; well, I was only reading the book to inform my experience of the movie, and it wasn’t that much of a priority.
So I dunno how true to the book the movie is. Probably not a lot, going on the bit I read. Same setting, same over-arching plot, but all new adventures, compressed into a shorter time and much more cinematic. And Wade’s not fat any more. Kind of a schlub, but good looking and well put together. It’s all a lot more … Hollywood than the original, I suspect.
But is it good Hollywood? This is Spielberg, the only reason I even bothered. Apparently it was his hardest movie since Saving Private Ryan, which is something I can’t understand but only take on faith. The effects shots took so long to render that Spielberg had time to go and make The Post while he waited for them to finish. They’re technically impressive, and yet, as is always the way with CGI, uninvolving no matter how good they look. A world where everyone can be whatever they want to be is somehow a world without any real stakes, no matter how flashy it looks.
This despite the fact that the movie is going crazy trying to get you to invest. Everyone’s competing for a hidden easter egg in a computer game, and the winner will get half a trillion dollars and absolute control of a hideous mashup of Facebook and virtual reality in which apparently the whole world spends all its free time. So clearly, this shouldn’t fall into the wrong hands, or something. But we’re watching this movie uncomfortably conscious that most of this stuff doesn’t so much fall into the wrong hands as start out from there and then fall apart after a few years.
So, stakes that are hard to understand, visuals which are impressive without being emotionally resonant. Have we characters to believe in? Most of the time we’re watching avatars in VR, who are purposely heightened cartoons of what their people want to look like. And because they’re supposed to look kind of fake, they never really start to stick as people for us to care about. Then we swap out to their people, and there’s really not that much going on there either. A lot of the time, all that holds the attention is little moments when a character pulls out a gun and you recognise it from another movie.
Over on the grown up side of the table, Mark Rylance is thrown away as the creator of the whole schemozzle; and when I say thrown away, I mean that it takes a very particular kind of mind to slap a wig on Mark Rylance and then tell him to play as spectrum as he can. Rylance has a rare charisma; he steals Bridge of Spies from Tom Hanks by somehow out-warming him. Telling him to dial that down is like duct-taping the Mona Lisa. Ben Mendelsohn, on the other hand, must be getting worried that he’s only ever going to play hapless creeps running empires of nerds who secretly hate him.
And as so often, I’m struggling to make sense of the economics. The US economy has collapsed, yet somehow a fortune of half a trillion dollars has retained its value in a world where no-one has a job or any spending power. The whole world’s living in a virtual reality as much of the time as it can, yet the big corporate bad maintains huge factories in which people slave away at virtual tasks which they could just as well do from home. There’s an enormous pervasive network with the bandwidth to let everyone participate in cinematic high definition shared spaces, but no real sign of the servers and transmission systems which would make it work.
None of this is puzzling as the way in which Spielberg can’t make the world or the people come to life. There’s an assured sequence at the beginning, as Wade expositions the world of 2045 and the role of VR, and the camera roams around the high rise slum he lives in. Everyone in sight is hooked into VR, goggles strapped to their faces and waving their arms and legs around to make something happen in an imaginary world, and Spielberg finds ways to suggest that everyone is doing something different, and feeling all kinds of different things about it, from drudgery to desperation to elation. And then the camera settles on Wade, and the sense of the world falls away, never to come back.