This article contains Ready Player One ending spoilers.
There is something decidedly retro and even euphoric about the end of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. Lead character Wade Watts/Parzival (Tye Sheridan) has discovered the easter egg he has thirsted for his entire formative teenage years; he also has found love in the girl of his dreams, Samantha/Artemis (Olivia Cooke); there is even an authority figure with a Willy Wonkian like twinkle in his eye there to pat him on the back and say good job in the form of one Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg); the bad guys are punished, the good guys win; and it ends on an unapologetically sappy kiss like the best ‘80s teen adventures, which were likewise unconcerned with the armada of intersectional think pieces they were about to launch.
In the broadest strokes, it is more or less the conclusion to Ernest Cline’s bestselling Ready Player One novel, which was published in 2011 and has been interchangeably celebrated and reviled ever since. And yet, it is a wildly different conclusion to the story than what’s found in Cline’s book, which much less knowingly also ends on a boy “discovering” a girl as his literal prize at the center of a maze. In fact, like much else about the Spielbergian movie, everything from the ground-up of the Ready Player One conclusion has been radically redesigned. And while we’re sure this will cause some handwringing among the novel’s most invested of fans, we’re here to say that it’s okay. Because much like Spielberg’s amendments to Peter Benchley’s Jaws and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (the latter of which resembles Ready Player One in that the author contributed to the screenplay), Spielberg improves upon what appears on the written page, distilling a vaguely esoteric slice of nerdiness into pure cinematic joy. And we’re here to explain it.
The end of the Ready Player One novel really begins when Wade, who on the page never really makes a mistake, chooses to create a fake amount of debt so he will be seized by IOI repo men and taken into indentured servitude within the belly of the beast. From there, he rather easily spends a week circumventing their intranet from the inside, so as to create a perfect plan that will bring down the force field around Anorak/Halliday’s castle. He also escapes with ease and recruits who is left of the High Five (Daito is murdered by IOI in the book) and convinces them—through similarly strained plot machinations—to ultimately meet him at Ogden’s (or Og’s) home. From there they all safely lead their digital revolution.
Only not only is the revolution televised, but it is without stakes because Wade is content with whatever happens. Due to his IOI heroics, he’s already implicitly impressed Artemis, who by this point has “broken up” with him (they have never actually met). But after their big battle for Halliday’s egg, Wade has confirmation he will be able to meet Arty/Samantha in the real world and reconcile their differences. Of course everything still goes splendidly inside the final battle, which like the movie includes Nolan Sorrento piloting Mechagodzilla (although the rest of the giant robots featured are different). And once inside the Third Gate, Parzival’s final challenge is a tension free arcade game of Tempest and then a quote-along of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), in which Z is required to play all the roles and know all the lines. He doesn’t even describe this moment that will define whether he saves the OASIS or not as challenging. He says “it was fun,” with the rest of the High Five watching him play Monty Python on their feeds and laughing along. Kind of like how one might imagine a movie night goes for Cline and pals. Finally, his last challenge is simply to type “Kira” into an IMASI 8080 (another reference to Cline’s beloved childhood touchstone, WarGames) and enjoy the ride.
And then, yes, Samantha wordlessly awaits for him to claim his prize on her lips in a life-sized hedge maze recreation of Adventure in Og’s backyard. For readers who have enjoyed the journey thus far, or remember games like Tempest and can (mostly) recall all the quotes from Monty Python, it is harmlessly sweet nostalgia. For many others, it reads as downright cloying and is especially apt for the fair criticism that notes the ending robs Artemis of her agency, turning her into little more than a trophy to be won.
And that right there is the first of many things Spielberg’s film course corrects with aplomb. For in the film, it is Samantha, not Wade, who goes behind enemy lines at IOI, and unlike Wade, it is not part of some masterful plan, but a nightmare that is bolstered by her backstory—a backstory that is nonexistent in the book. While only dropped in a handful of lines, we discover that Cooke’s Artemis is not just altruistic in her desire to win Halliday’s egg (in the book she wants to fight climate change and overpopulation), but she is also driven by a sense of revenge against IOI, who previously enslaved her father as an indentured servant for the rest of his natural life when she was a child.
So Samantha’s choice to go after the egg has personal stakes beyond being “a good person wanting to do the right thing,” and the fate of being sent to IOI’s glorified concentration camp is not part of some easy-breezy cool guy-hero plan, but an actual fate filled with dread and terror for the heroine; she could conceivably spend the rest of her life trapped inside one of these standing coffins.
While it is Wade who figures out a way to hack into IOI from the outside and free Samantha from her prison, she still stays longer than needed in the belly of the beast to figure out a way to bring down IOI’s force field, which is the only reason Parzival can lead his revolution. Without Samantha’s own foresight and independent decision-making, they’d all be doomed.
This also gets to a larger point about the film’s ending, and why it is so much more satisfying than the novel’s. There is a sense of danger to the proceedings that involves all of the characters, who are now more than a glorified audience left to cheer on Wade’s undisputed greatness. Aech and the Iron Giant are taken out early in the battle against IOI and Mechagodzilla, but Aech is still crucial in saving the day. If not for her “Mario Kart” skills at driving the mobile van, IOI’s F’Nale Zander would have probably put two bullets in Wade’s head while he was lost in the delusion of being a war hero. And even with Aech keeping them on the move, it is the actions of young, 11-year-old Shoto in the film that prevents F’Nale from still getting her hands fully on Wade.
Which again gets to the film’s most masterful correction of the novel’s rather limp conclusion: the real world and fantasy of the OASIS are merged. On the page, Z and friends lead what Og cheerfully calls, “The Greatest Battle in Video Game History.” Yet it is still nevertheless a game. Wade is sure that Samantha is waiting for him when it’s all over, so in the meantime, let’s have fun. But by changing the location from the safety of Og’s hidden mansion to the back of Aech’s rickety van, suddenly the two realities mingle in menace, and Wade’s life is in critical danger the whole time, even if he is somewhat oblivious to it.
In this way, Spielberg emulates the ending to Inception, in which different “levels” of the fantasy are reaching their own separate climaxes, including one involving a car chase. As Wade discovers he has an “extra life,” and pretty much an easy path to Halliday’s egg, the van is crashed and IOI is closing in, including Nolan Sorrento himself. Rather than hearing on the news afterward that Nolan is being arrested, Wade and friends get to see it, because Nolan comes within a hair’s breadth of shooting Wade dead.
Of course he won’t, this is still an ‘80s-esque teen empowerment fantasy directed by the King of ‘80s movies, Steven Spielberg. But by at least creating these stakes, the filmmaker is able to flawlessly cut between magical OASIS and grim reality, and through the alchemy of pacing and structure, ratchet up the audience’s involvement. And when it comes time to actually embrace the OASIS fantasy, the requisite arcade game (here Adventure, as opposed to Tempest) is followed up by not geeky movie knowledge, but a test of morality, and a real connection being formed between Parzival and Halliday’s ghost in the machine, which suspiciously could pass any Voight-Kampff test for artificial intelligence.
Halliday’s final moments, which are similar to those in the book, are given an extra dimension largely due to Rylance’s quality as an actor, as well as because he tests Z’s resolve with a fakeout contract like he’s some kind of Templar knight from an Indiana Jones movie who must “choose wisely” between a variety of grail cups. As a consequence, Halliday’s advice about avoiding living a life wasted has teeth.
Only then does Wade get the egg, get the girl who he has previously formed an actual (if brief) connection with in the real world before this climax, and gets to meet Og, who helps him wave goodbye to Nolan Sorrento and say hello to a newly rich man’s best friend: lawyers.
It is the same ending, but onscreen, it is imbued with stakes, character development, and a degree of giddy fun that is missing on the page. So when a book purist inevitably laments that Spielberg made changes from the book, please respond, “Yes, and thank Halliday for that.”