Reviewers Note: My copy of Kubrick’s Game was supplied by the author. The novel releases September 26th, 2016 and can be preordered here
I don’t normally do log lines, but since Derek Taylor Kent’s newest novel is about movies, I think it’s fitting. Kubrick’s Game is Ready Player One written by Dan Brown…but about Kubrick movies instead of 1980’s pop culture. Here’s the thing though: I don’t like Ready Player One or Dan Brown. The former has maybe four good ideas executed in the worst way possible and the latter is a gimmick writer at best.
So when I say Kubrick’s Game is better than both, know that the bar isn’t set all that high.
Let’s get the basic plot out of the way. Shawn is a twenty-something in film school with a crush on his TA. He’s on the autism spectrum. His tick is movies. He especially loves Kubrick, and when his school is given a puzzle to solve—by the late Kubrick himself—he and his two friends are scooped up as major players. Of course, the puzzle turns out to be dangerous because what’s a book without a little danger?
The core of Kubrick’s Game is its puzzle, or its series of puzzles. Similar to Ready Player One which had a large quest embedded in 1980’s trivia, this book has its quest split through every Kubrick movie. All of the little flaws and debates the world has been having since Spartacus through Eyes Wide Shut were released are here, and the longer the book goes on, the more deliberate all those supposed flaws appear to be.
It’s honestly brilliant. I know a bit about Kubrick, enough to enjoy his movies, and I was nodding most of the way. It all fits together shockingly well, made better with captioned pictures from the movies. This book doesn’t just tell you how this works; it shows you. It’s a wonderful piece of movie history, of research, and of intertextual criticism. I cannot fathom how much work went into this book. (I mostly don’t want to because it would give me a headache.)
Plus, it’ll make you appreciate Kubrick on a whole ‘nother level. I have to rewatch A Clockwork Orange now. And all of his other movies, if I’m being honest.
I wonder…I wonder if this book would have been better served as a Holy Blood; Holy Grail type story. For those who don’t know, that’s the book that Dan Brown damn near plagiarized when he wrote The Da Vinci Code. It’s a long piece of “nonfiction” about Jesus and what The Bible doesn’t tell you, and you can find snippets of it on Google Books if you’re bored.
This book could have been that. Keep the research, keep the links between all the movies, and alter the agenda slightly. If Mr. Kent really wanted to, he could have convinced us all that Kubrick filmed [insert one of a thousand conspiracy theories here].
Speaking of which, this novel is loaded to the brim with conspiracy theories. I’m not a fan, meaning my eyes were rolling more than they should have been. They do somewhat fit here given Kubrick’s use of illuminati and freemason imagery, but I half check out when either show up regardless of context.
I don’t want to say it’s the characters that lessen this book, because they don’t. Honestly, all of them are fine and flawed in believable/interesting ways. Shawn is obsessed with making movies on a technical level because he doesn’t understand the emotional significance of them, Wilson is a has-been child actor who wants to be a director, and Sami is the aforementioned TA who doesn’t like Shawn in any romantic way whatsoever. They’re all fine. Hell, the idea of someone who only wants to know how movies are made technically is actually a great struggle because most of us watch them to be entertained and spoken to emotionally. He’s operating on a level I cannot fathom, and it’s handled well.
But the novel itself feels like it’s going through the motions most of the time. The plot speeds along at a fine pace as we hit the obligatory action and relationship drama needed to make a YA novel a YA novel. When I say this book is like Ready Player One, it’s because it hits almost all of those story beats. It’s actually a little boring.
It doesn’t help that just like in Ready Player One, there are long conversations about Kubrick movies that feel more like essays than plot progression.
The action and relationship drama break up the mystery and long essays on film theory, but neither are what I’d call realistic. The first handful of action sequences work, and I suppose they’re fun, but as the stakes ramp up and dangerous people bring out guns and knives, I couldn’t help but wonder why no one was calling the cops. By the final, climactic “fight,” realism is all but gone as gangsters are tackled and their guns are dropped.
The relationship drama is a bit trickier, because half of it makes sense given the context of Shawn as a character; however, I still didn’t care for it. It only ever came off as a distraction, and most of the big drama comes directly from Shawn saying or doing something stupid. I recall one scene that had me cringe so hard I almost stopped reading the book altogether.
Kubrick’s Game is a hard book to review because it technically doesn’t do anything wrong. It handles its core concept well, it has moments of fun, and I enjoyed the characters (for the most part). The ending is kind of bonkers, and I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or not. However, there are parts that rubbed me the wrong way, little things that add up over the course of a book, and having read a few novels similar to this one before, I don’t see much that sets this one apart.
Well, other than the fact that it’s written better.
I guess I’ll end with this: If you haven’t read Ready Player One and want a clue-based mystery, this is worth a look. If you have read Ready Player One and liked it, then you’ll like this. It’s better.
If you have read Ready Player One and didn’t like it though, well, this may not sway you at all