TV + FILM
‘Ready Player One’ Lives In An Oasis Far From Reality
Writer, Speaker, + Podcast Host
I t’s easy to forget that one of Steven Spielberg’s many directorial lanes is “the action movie for teenagers.” His blockbuster action/adventure films are so canonized in American film lore we forget how cheesy ‘Jurassic Park’ is or that ‘E.T.’ is a movie about kids trapped in a world of adults who just don’t get it. It’s possible even ‘The Indy Movie That Musn’t Be Named’ could be viewed more generously this way, though I’ll never watch it again to find out.
So I want to start out by saying that ‘Ready Player One’ is in many ways a great addition to the “movie for young teens” Spielberg canon. It’s a non-stop, never-boring action romp that turns a so-so novel into a great popcorn flick. It stars Wade (Tye Sheridan) as a classic Spielbergian outsider - absent father issues and all - fighting with his team to save the world from corporate adult types. The movie is set in a dystopian future where energy and food shortages have created a wealth gap between the haves and have-nots. Many people live in “the stacks,” where trailer parks are haphazardly piled on top of each other in a way that suggests “building inspector” isn’t a booming career path.
The one escape from reality is “The Oasis,” a World of Warcraft-meets the internet-meets virtual reality program where you can be anything and do anything you want. The Oasis’s creator is a socially awkward tech genius named Halliday (Mark Rylance, stealing every scene he’s in), and he has posthumously announced he’s placed an “easter egg” in the Oasis that leads to an elaborate scavenger hunt. The first person to finish will be given full control of the Oasis (this would be kind of like owning the rights to the Internet) along with half a trillion dollars. The key to solving the scavenger hunt is to become so obsessed with Halliday’s life - I mean, creepily, weirdly obsessed with everything about him - that you can decipher his clues. The high stakes of the contest pit Wade against the megacorporation IOI and its CEO Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who want control of Oasis so they can place pop-up ads all over it, which in fairness is a legitimately evil act. Oh, they also throw people in debtor’s prison or something. The point is they’re evil.
Ready Player One, based on a so-so book of the same name, cuts out some (if not all) of the book’s eye-rolling exposition, keeps the propulsive plot and imaginative setting, and lets Spielberg, the guy who invented the popcorn flick, crank his goofy action sensibilities up to an eleven. This is a movie where King Kong and a T-Rex both disrupt a Mario Kart style race. Where the Iron Giant goes to war with Mechagodzilla, where a Freddy Krueger avatar being killed in a massive battle is just one of a zillion “blink, and you’ll miss it” visual references made, and where there’s an elaborate reference to a … actually, I’m not going to ruin that part. But it’s not in the book and it is the best part of the film.
‘Ready Player One’ shares the same problem as its source material: it’s a story about obsessive geek culture that ignores how dark that culture is. If you’ve ever spent time with an online multiplayer game you know, it’s not a harmless world where fellow obsessives enjoy a shared passion. Geek culture — whether on Xbox, Reddit, 4-chan or anywhere else — is home to some of the vilest, racist, misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic conversations humanity has to offer.
I say this as someone who loves video games, can obsessively quote my favorite movies, and has long tended to build my friendships around essential characteristics like “loves that TV show too.” I’m the kid who listened to Metallica in ninth grade and thought pop music was for people who hated things that were good. I’m the exact opposite of a “get a life nerds” sneering alpha bro that is often pitted against the geek world. But I also know that these hobbies, when they become obsessions, are far from harmless. Spielberg’s “loner geek on the outside” character hasn’t aged well. A quick look at what’s happening in Silicon Valley or the Wikipedia page for “gamergate” will quickly remind you that the beta-male nerd culture treated fondly by Ready Player One often morphs into a repressed male rage that lashes out at the “other.” At its worst, this becomes what’s commonly called the Alt-Right: a bunch of angry white males demanding they “get their country” back from people who don’t look like them.
Maybe it’s expecting too much of Ready Player One to address that, and perhaps a movie for young teenagers that says “hey, don’t get too caught up in all this” is of value. But just like the book, Spielberg’s movie looks too fondly at its (white male) characters’ obsessions for the critique to hold. I couldn’t shake a disturbing vision of what Halliday’s “VR internet” would be like, and what it would do to those who spent time in it, and the film’s obliviousness to that reality is a significant detriment.
Ready Player One wants to be great, escapist entertainment, but its Oasis is a hellscape, and the movie doesn’t seem to realize that.
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