Ready Player One (2018)
Written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Wade Watts is a young man living in the Columbus stacks in the year 2045. An online virtual world called The Oasis dominates everyone’s lives providing them the ability to be whomever they wish and do whatever they want to. The deceased creator of the Oasis, James Halliday posthumously announces a contest hidden throughout this artificial reality, a search for three keys. To find the keys, you must decode the riddles Halliday has left which all seem to tie back to events in his personal life, particularly regrets. Wade befriends Kira, a fellow searcher for the keys and they take on the menace of IOI, a corporate entity devoting their resources to finding the keys. The person who solves the riddles and finds the keys will end up with ownership of the Oasis and determine its future.
I hated Ready Player One. I want to get that out on the table right away. It represents everything I despise about “geek culture” in our modern era. It attempts to capitalize on things like the mythology of Steve Jobs and tries to walk an incredibly wishy-washy line between moralizing about the merits of living in the real world while continually showing us how much more impressive and better the Oasis is. The film is thematically bankrupt, and when it does try to engage on the audience on an emotional level, it rings so harshly false. I credit this to screenwriter Zak Penn who has written the scripts of many shallow corporate blockbusters (Inspector Gadget, X-Men: The Last Stand, Elektra, to name a few).
Penn isn’t working with stellar source material though. I read Ready Player One back in 2012 and couldn’t stand the style of prose. I have a devotion to finishing every book I start, and so I slogged my way through this and came away absolutely horrified at what an empty narrative I just consumed. Wade Watts is one of the blandest and most uninteresting protagonists I’d ever read and continues to be that on the screen. The film tries to add more conflict and chance of failure while the book just sold him as a straight up Mary Sue, infallible in every way. The movie fails to make Wade a compelling character and that just sort of spreads out into the supporting cast.
What Ready Player One represents to me are all the dark and terrible things that come from Steven Spielberg’s career. I watch E.T. and marvel at Melissa Matheson’s on point script and Spielberg’s soft touch with the camera. The sentiment in E.T. is genuine, even as an adult I don’t feel forced into caring, it is purely organic. Ready Player One tells you that living in the virtual world all the time isn’t a good thing but then shows you how awesome it is to exist in this place full of pop culture Easter eggs. Character religiously devote themselves to consuming the data of what Halliday absorbed throughout his life to the point they quiz each other as a way to gatekeep. There is a world broadly painted outside of Wade Watts’ experience in this picture that I think would have served the movie well to explore.
Corporate authoritarianism is a problem, and the solution offered to perpetuate empty consumerism. But it’s okay; they’ll turn the Oasis off twice a week so people can like go to the park and talk to their family and shit. There’s even a button introduced that would destroy the entire Oasis, and I couldn’t help but think how Wade needed to press that, that so much of the problems we were seeing were directly tied to large swaths of people escaping from the devastating reality around them. Ready Player One is perfect Resistance for lazy people in the Trump era.
Ready Player One is the sort of movie that privileged liberals like Steven Spielberg make, long having cashed in his artistic integrity for making studio heads happy. That boggles my mind because the amount of wealth he has right now should afford him the ability to make films he genuinely cares about. Tintin was something I think he wanted to make. I can’t imagine he has much of an emotional connection to Ready Player One because I can see the lack of it on the screen in the way the dialogue clunks out of the characters and the stock manner in which the plot is resolved. I am tired of movies that want to be the Where’s Waldo of cinema, demanding I notice all the references made on the screen and in the dialogue. If anything I guess this picture is a clear indication of how shallow and particularly emotionally artificial our culture can be.