The greatest compliment I can give Steven Spielberg is that he directs action so well that Ready Player One is legitimately thrilling for as long as you can ignore how culturally bankrupt it is. It’s hard to remember the last time a massive CGI setpiece was even tolerable, let alone compelling, and Spielberg does them so well here that they’re the highlight of the movie (which this reviewer saw in IMAX 3D). The action works so well as eye candy that it remains engaging despite carrying all the narrative weight of watching someone else play video games — which literally describes most of Ready Player One’s 140-minute runtime.
The film almost certainly succeeds far beyond the asinine-sounding book upon which it was based. But even so, fully enjoying Ready Player One requires extreme compartmentalization, the ability to separate the action, which is thrilling, from the content, which is utterly vacuous.
Ready Player One (the book) came out in 2011, at the high-water mark of the “nerd as cultural force” phenomenon. At the time, G4 was still going strong and Chris Hardwick had released a self-help book with a cover featuring Hardwick brandishing the word “nerd” written on his knuckles, promising to teach you “how to reach the next level (in real life).” Gamergate hadn’t happened yet, and there was still a widespread assumption that to be a “nerd” was to be sensitive and thoughtful, if obsessive and socially awkward. There were signs that this assumption was wildly misguided even then, especially if you’d spent any time actually hanging out with the obsessive and awkward. Discussing the culture’s failings at the time, a game developer friend of mine said the trouble with these consumer-as-identity folks was that they can “categorize but not synthesize.”
This describes Ready Player One to a T. Its story celebrates the ability to retain pieces of pop culture ephemera, but even in lionizing characters who devote their entire lives to it can’t come up with any plausible explanation of why this might be good. Even when depicting ways that it might be bad it seems blind to its own implications. It’s a movie where the main character delivers a stirring speech about all the friends he’s found in the virtual reality video game world — It’s even helped him find love! — at which his audience stands rapt in the streets, Spielberg-faced in agreement — Yeah! We have lots of virtual friends now too! — seemingly unconscious of the fact that they already had 20 potential real-world friends standing two feet away from them, if they’d only taken off the VR headsets and said hello. The film makes a half-hearted attempt to address the analog world (“The best thing about reality is… it’s real” is an actual line), but it’s so transparently tacked on that it only serves to further expose the creators’ disinterest in the world outside games.
The most damning critique I can give Spielberg is that even while he’s enough of a virtuoso to get me invested in someone else’s video game, he can’t identify the crushing void at the center of this narrative. He comes off a brilliant craftsman and a mediocre thinker.
Tye Sheridan plays Wade, aka Parzival, an orphan living in 2044 Columbus with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend in a vertical cluster of trailer parks called “The Stacks.” The world of The Stacks is one of the film’s only original inventions and easily its most compelling backdrop. But it’s almost a joke how little the narrative (the screenplay comes from Zak Penn and Ernest Cline adapting Cline’s novel) cares about the real world. Wade grew up “long after everyone had given up trying to fix things,” as he tells us in the opening voiceover, and nowadays they only hope to endure. All anyone cares about anymore is an elaborate Second Life-style video game/alternate reality called The Oasis.
Everything in the film is geared towards The Oasis. Its ’80s pop culture-obsessed creator, Halliday (Mark Rylance), became a trillionaire from it but has since died, and promised control over it (and his fortune) to whoever can follow his clues and find the “Easter Egg” hidden inside it. The bad guy, Sorrento (played by Ben Mendelsohn) runs an evil tech company with an army of numbered drones (“Sixers”) trying to find the egg so he can take over the Oasis and fill it with ads (a net neutrality parable?). Meanwhile, the good guys, Wade and his crew of “Gunters” (short for “egg hunters,” and unclear whether it’s also a reference to the Urban Dictionary portmanteau of “gut” and “c*nt”), also spend their days trying to find the egg. So, what do they want to do with it?
Wade’s character arc is roughly that he goes from wanting to get the Easter Egg so that he can become a trillionaire and “buy cool shit,” to being converted to something more by pretty Artemis (played by Thoroughbreds‘ Olivia Cooke, she’s a conventionally attractive redhead with an unconventional facial birthmark that only a sensitive nerd could overlook, wouldn’t you know) to try to “save The Oasis.” Saving the Oasis involves trying to get inside the head of The Oasis’ awkward but good-hearted Original Lonely Boy creator, Halliday — knowing his likes and dislikes (“The Shining was his 11th favorite horror movie!”) and where he met the proverbial One That Got Away.