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.
Throughout, they treat “saving The Oasis” as a self-explanatory end goal. Even though 1) they’ve already told us that The Oasis is solely a means “to endure” their crummy existence (and may even be partly the cause of it) and 2) actually finding the Easter Egg would fundamentally change The Oasis as they know it (they’re all there to find the Easter Egg, once it’s already been found, why would they still go?). And so, the entire story is built on twin fallacies. The fallacy of “the good billionaire” (a trillionaire in this case — Halliday), whom we should seek to understand and emulate; and the fallacy that simply consuming can save us all, provided that we’re good consumers. (Which I guess means… being a better nerd?).
Ready Player One has no desire to reckon with either of these problems, and seems designed by and for people who can utterly compartmentalize, who are here not to gain insight or discover new ideas or find salvation, but simply to… see… things. Things that they recognize. It is a feast for thing enthusiasts, where the mere existence of THINGS is an ultimate good, and the only cure for society’s attachment to things is MORE THINGS.
I confess that I’m not only not a thing enthusiast, but have long found people clapping for things they recognize, whether it be the Stan Lee cameo or almost the entirety of Game Night, thoroughly infuriating, if not the symptom of a sick society. It’s a credit to Spielberg that his production design and action compositions are dazzling enough for me to enjoy action scenes designed largely to serve the thing recognizers, even in the context of a story that’s all empty calories. (Zack Snyder couldn’t make a similar thing work in Sucker Punch, even when he threw in robot samurai.) It’s also a credit to Ready Player One‘s outstanding cast, from Sheridan and Mendelsohn down to Cooke and Lena Waithe as the black tomboy/giant robot Aech, who breathe life into dialogue that easily could’ve been disastrous (whereas here it’s merely silly). Ready Player One‘s Asian characters seem like throwaway clichés, but that’s a story for another time.
Ready Player One reveals its true id in a heated scene between Wade and Sorrento (a classic of the “We’re not so different, you and I” variety), in which Sorrento tries to recruit Wade for his evil plans and Wade rejects his offer, growling “A fanboy knows a hater.”
To which you might wonder… what does “fanboy” even mean in this context, floating free of a modifier, that might tell us… what thing the boy is even a fan of. A fanboy is not a fan of a specific thing, just an all-purpose fan… of things? Thus, your personal identity is “person who likes… things?”
This is the kind of uncritical thinking the advertising industry has been trying to inculcate in the public consciousness for last 60 or 70 years. Be happy, buy stuff! Yet I don’t think even the Don Drapers of the world initially expected people to believe it. It was just a shorthand. A little word association trick, like a pick-up artist’s ruse to create a false sense of familiarity. Short circuit your mark’s brain a little, hypnotize him by repeating his name, Dale Carnegie-style, for fun and profit. Happy guy, bottle of Coke. Isn’t it better to consume and smile than to criticize and frown? Fast-forward to the late ’70s or so and they’ve raised a significant portion of a generation who’ve internalized advertising’s messaging so fully and so uncritically that they honestly believe “fan of things = good; not fan of things = …bad?” without even having to know what the things are. They’ve built an entire identity out of being an easy mark. Worse, they believe that to say so out loud, to write all-purpose love letters to… things, any thing — is somehow profound. This attitude of all-purpose positivity is not only artistically lame, it may end up killing us.
And so, in spite of how visually dazzling and legitimately entertaining it is, Ready Player One is at its heart, a celebration of the gormless rube. It is a paean to the schmuck. To celebrate it uncritically is to become one.