On April 4th, film trade outlets broke the news that Wrath of the Titans screenwriter Dan Mazeau has been hired to write a screenplay for Armada, the second novel by Ready Player One author Ernest Cline. The possibility of an Armada movie isn’t breaking news; Cline sold the film rights to Universal in 2012, within a week of selling the book rights to Crown, a full three years before the novel was even published. But the trades are taking Mazeau’s hiring as clear evidence that Armada is actually moving forward as a project, likely due to the financial success of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One adaptation, the first Spielberg film to make $300 million in international release since 2011.
Ready Player One isn’t just headed for financial success, though. It’s become the kind of legitimate conversation piece that makes studios salivate. Film fans may love Cline’s books or hate them, but odds are that they know his name and have an opinion about him, and even people with no intention of ever seeing Ready Player One are aware of it. That kind of cultural saturation (achieved in this case through aggressive, widespread marketing as much as anything else) is always a blessing to film studios that are competing for audience attention and focus.
But while the response to Ready Player One, both the book and the film, has been mixed-to-positive, Cline’s Armada hasn’t prompted the same kind of loyalty. It’s a widely derided book, due to its blatant appropriation of familiar plots, clumsy prose, and equally naked wish-fulfillment narrative, which features an obsessive gamer and pop culture fanatic saving the world with his gamer skills — and openly thumbing his nose at everyone who ever suggested he was wasting his time by obsessively focusing on his gaming skills. Cline’s sullen teenage fantasy has a protagonist parlaying antisocial behavior into worldwide acclaim and the slavish devotion of a vaguely realized “cool girl.” In the process, he portrays gamers as secretly the most important and tragically underappreciated people in the world. Ready Player One is a self-indulgent but celebratory novel about the pop culture Cline loves. Armada is downright masturbatory about it.
Does that mean it can’t be turned into an effective film? Not necessarily. Cline’s Ready Player One has similar flaws, and the film version, co-scripted by Cline and Zak Penn, addressed many of them directly. Mazeau will also reportedly be working directly with Cline, who’s already written an Armada script. If the two of them can follow the Ready Player One model and improve on the book, there’s a chance that the film could work on-screen without drawing the same hostility the book received. Here are a few things Cline and Mazeau could learn from what worked with the Ready Player One adaptation.
Focus on the action, not the lists of references.
Armada practically chokes on its pop culture references, and unlike Ready Player One, it doesn’t make them integral to the plot. Protagonist Zack Lightman has a reason to care about ‘80s culture, since it connects him to his long-gone father, who left behind a conspiracy theory tied to old movies. But that doesn’t explain the way Cline turns every sympathetic character in Armada into a quote-slinging, trivia-arguing fan nerd. Even Zack’s mom uses Lord of the Rings’ line “You shall not pass!” when scolding him. It’s self-indulgent and repetitive, and it makes widely diverse characters from around the world all feel like identically drawn Ernest Cline clones. Ready Player One needs its cultural baggage to make its plot and setting work, but the film pares down the references to what’s necessary for the action, and pushes the rest of them to the backdrop, as set dressing instead of centerpieces. For Armada, Cline and Mazeau could easily pare them down a lot further. Limiting the spazzy references to Zack and his closest buddies, for instance, would make him a distinctive character instead of just another cog in the reference machine. It’d also cut down on endless critical hand-wringing over whether the film is based in cultural awareness or empty nostalgia.
Find new ground to distinguish the story
One of the most frustrating things about Armada is that it’s a lightly re-skinned take on the 1984 movie The Last Starfighter, and, to a lesser degree, Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel Ender’s Game. Armada openly mentions both works and presents itself as the “real” version of their fictional story. But just acknowledging the plot similarities doesn’t excuse them. The book doesn’t bring enough of a fresh take to the “video games are actually training people to fight aliens” concept. The film version of Ready Player One takes some sharp left turns from the book, replacing its most unfilmable scenes — like the one where he reenacts the entirety of Monty Python and the Holy Grail — with surprising new material. And it gets its strongest character work by significantly deepening the character of Halliday, the tragic games designer whose obsessions define protagonist Wade Watt’s world. A worthwhile Armada adaptation needs to follow the same course by making the plot more distinctive and creative and finding more resonant elements in its simplistic characters.
Make the supporting characters worth knowing.
Armada the book has some serious problems with its supporting characters, who largely exist to admire and support Zack, to envy him, or to scold and limit him so he can feel even more satisfaction when he ignores their rules and succeeds anyway. Many of the biggest complaints about the book come from what a thinly obvious solipsistic fantasy it is. The Ready Player One film also has supporting character problems, but it at least makes some effort to give Wade’s allies their own important roles in the story in ways that don’t just reflect more glory back on him. Armada needs a similar hard look at whether anyone else in the story has a real purpose or personality. Most of them don’t, and characters like Zack’s love interest Lex, a collection of cheap fantasy traits who only serves to ease his path and flatter his ego, could just as readily be cut or expanded into something less embarrassingly facile.
Tone down the self-satisfaction.
For the Ready Player One adaptation, Cline and Penn had the good sense to cut some of Wade’s most egregiously smug moments, like the scene where he sneers his way through an impromptu Swordquest trivia-off with another gamer who’s out to solve the same puzzle he’s on. (“Try asking me something difficult,” he snorts, when asked who programmed the games.) Armada needs a similar severe hand. It’s such a naked fantasy of self-satisfaction, of a bullied kid being told that his self-indulgent obsessions are the most important things in the world and that he deserves power, respect, and admiration for having pursued them. It’s all a very specific, narrow fantasy for gamers, right up to the point where Zack is given his own infinitely comfortable gamer-cradle, fully equipped with his favorite snacks and music, plus a strain of weed grown just for him and his fellow players.
But like Ready Player One, the Armada adaptation is presumably going to be aimed at a comparatively wide audience, and its fantasies of validation and recognition have to reach further than the comparatively narrow world of competitive video gamers. The Ready Player One adaptation widens the story to encompass anyone who has a fantasy they’d want to play out in an escapist world, and while it turns its hero into a bland audience avatar, at least he’s no longer a preening jackass who thinks his knowledge of Earthworld’s Talisman of Penultimate Truth makes him objectively superior to someone who hasn’t heard of it. It’s going to be harder to find a broad common ground for Armada. Given how rooted the storyline is in validation fantasy and self-satisfaction, uprooting it will be a difficult process. But Ready Player One is an excellent model for how an extremely specific story can be broadened into a more welcoming and nuanced one, without losing sight of the original story. Maybe there’s still hope for Armada.
Get it out before the Last Starfighter revival project makes it obsolete.
Unless Gary Whitta’s Last Starfighter, also recently teased as a developing project, makes it to the screen first. At that point, it’s going to be even harder to make a case for Armada as a distinctive project instead of an awkwardly derivative one. Let’s see who can climb the leaderboard faster.