I have a lot of mixed feelings about this movie. I enjoyed watching it, for sure, but I feel like I’ve got a few too many problems with it to really come up with a positive review as I look back on it. The effects were great, the movie did a great job of pulling me in, and the characters were a lot of fun to watch. At the same time, the plot felt very rushed and kind of oddly-paced, the main character basically Mary Sue’d his way through everything, and all the other characters pretty much just fell by the wayside in order to let the main character stand out when he really shouldn’t have.
To be clear, I had only read half the book before seeing this movie so I’m going to completely discard my feelings about the movie as they relate to the book. I’m going to focus on the movie as a movie and then, once I’ve finished the book, review the book in a separate post.
I really enjoyed the visuals of the movie. It looks like mostly CGI, which made a lot of sense given that most of the movie happens in a virtual environment. The effects team did a great job of mixing wondrous and mundane so that everything felt familiar and understandable while still feeling different and interesting. Subtle shifts in the environment, the variety of the characters depicted who WEREN’T just copy and pasted from some game, the movements and body language of the characters was superb, and the few mixed live-action/CGI shots were sewn together wonderfully. There were almost no awkward angles, the battles flowed like a mighty river, and the few scenes we got off the character’s while they were logged into the virtual world were hilarious depictions of the sort of odd way the virtual world translated to the real one. all together, it did an excellent job of keeping me invested in the movie aside from a few points when the plot or writing threw me off.
Despite those moments, I have to give the writers credit for taking a story that is difficult to tell without the slower pacing of a novel and turning it into something a coherent movie plot. The world takes a whole lot of introduction to make sense in the book and the movie manages to not only skip most of that, but make the world feel more real in one fell narratorial swoop. That being said, it feels like an incredible stretch that no one figured out the secret of the first challenge until our main character just got lucky and stumbled onto the answer. Because that’s what he did. He got stupidly lucky and just stumbled his way into the correct solution. He didn’t have a flash of insight, he got spoon-fed the answer by a robot. Being an avid gamer myself and knowing people who take gaming to the point of an unhealthy obsession, I can say that someone would have figured out the secret of the race in the first month.
In a similar vein, it was incredibly frustrating to watch a bunch of uber-gamers work together without so much as an argument or attempt to get one over each other. I can’t even get that level of cooperation out of my friends when I play Overwatch and that is a game literally designed to promote teamwork. Most of us gamers have a massive competitive streak and I have a hard time believing that not a single one of these top five gamers thought about going for the prize themselves. They eagerly stand aside for the main character and one of them, the main character’s romantic interest and the player who seemed to be his main competition, literally declares that the main character has to be the one to take their one shot at the prize. That’s seriously a (paraphrased) line from the movie. Its even repeated a few times and absolutely no one says anything against it. Every other player competing for the prize is some amazingly skilled and wealthy character who has spent a huge amount of time accruing items, weapons, armor, and skill, but they all stand aside for the leather-clad, pistol-toting main character who was so broke at the start of the movie that he had to slow down during races to collect the coins from dead characters in order to get enough fuel for his car to finish the race. Seriously. One of the characters turns out to be the leader of some kind of rebellion and they immediately stand aside to let the main character take the lead as soon as he shows up (which only happened because they rescued him). It was so grating to see a powerful, strong character immediately defer to this wimpy, useless main character.
Seriously, aside from knowledge of the subject matter relevant to their search, the main character had nothing going for him. He should have been outclassed at all turns and only isn’t because everyone around him does everything for him or he just gets lucky. He shouldn’t have won. Anyone who was obsessed with this competition as the movie said all the other characters were, should have been able to figure out what the main character did. That’s the trouble of solving intellectual puzzles in a movie: there’s no way to show the character straining or working hard without showing them fail and failures are trimmed down in most movies so that the director can save a few minutes for more action sequences or proselytizing from the movie’s moral authority.
Thankfully, all of the “good” characters shared that job. No one person acted as the moral figure and the constant interaction between the characters kept things interesting when they were all around. Their banter was fun to listen to and they all did an excellent job of keeping the story moving along despite the awkward plot choices. The biggest problem I had, was that there was almost no awkwardness when the characters meet for the first time. Only two of them have been friends on the internet for very long, but they all seem to fall in together like they’ve been the best of friends for years. As someone who has had several of those “meet someone in the real world for the first time after really getting to know them in the electronic world” moments, I can say that they’re almost always awkward to some degree or another. It expedited the plot, but it pulled me out of the movie a bit.
There’s a lot to be said about all the references I saw and all of the ones I didn’t see, but I’m going to skip over that because finding the references for yourself is a significant chunk of the fun of the movie. I wouldn’t want to take that away from you. Which means I think you should see it. Probably not at full ticket price, but it is definitely worth the $5 for a Tuesday showing at a Marcus theater or however much a ticket costs at your local cheap theater whenever it hits the cheap scene. Or rent it when it comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray. Whatever you prefer since this really isn’t a movie you need to see on a big screen.