Ready Player One starts with dystopia: a Columbus, Ohio, housing ghetto in 2045, known as “The Stacks” for its resemblance to piled-up recreational vehicles, that is home to the film’s hero. Then the movie shifts gears from depressing hyperrealism to escapist fantasy.
But this escapism is so self-aware that it remains unconvincing. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), the film’s 18-year-old hero, seems younger. He’s become accustomed to nearly autistic diversion; he evades the misery of poverty, joblessness, isolation, and orphanhood (he lives with his aunt in a makeshift broken home oppressed by an abusive adult male). Secluding himself behind a visor and a pair of hand switches, Wade enters the OASIS, a virtual-reality-simulator game that provides his only release. His avatar is “Parzival,” named after a character from Arthurian mythology, who acts out his desperate venture in digital battles. Haptic technology gives him virtual contact (both visible and tactile) with anonymous but politically diverse playmates. They are Wade’s OASIS tribe, even including an adolescent love interest.
The above description should concern you because it’s full of cultural politics. Cultural politics enter Ready Player One when it becomes clear that Wade and the gamers all uncritically worship the digital manufacturer of OASIS, the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance acting absent-minded). As a way out of their dystopian despair, they pursue Halliday’s posthumous challenge to find three special keys to his bequest, a kingdom of corporate riches and earthly dominance. Unthinking viewers will see Wade’s venture as mere entertainment. But thinking viewers should see this tale as director Steven Spielberg’s parallel for the modern condition and a justification for escapism — another disappointing, though confessional, version of The Greatest Showman.
Look at how Halliday clearly represents techno mogul Steve Jobs, hybridized with an earlier generation’s Walt Disney. Spielberg plays sorcerer’s apprentice to both, causing competition between the techno and visionary sides of his genius: Insidious commercialism clashes with quasi spirituality, the mogul vs. the artist. The Halliday scenes evoke Citizen Kane yet are almost as hallowed as those in Lincoln.
Spielberg submits himself to playing out scenes of ultimate fanboy fantasy, but his nimble storytelling can’t hide depths of unacknowledged political despair. The social conflict implicit in Wade’s race for Halliday’s prize (hidden within digital “Easter eggs”) works against the adolescent thrall with pop culture that inspired Ernest Cline’s 2011 source novel. (Cline also wrote the script for the charmingly innocent, unjustly overlooked 2009 film Fanboys.) Now Spielberg uses that thrall to inveigle his audience; this film’s title blatantly invites viewers to enjoy a cascade of pop trivia.
The imagery makes one’s head spin without provoking thought.
Paul W. S. Anderson’s game-based movies, especially his stirring remake of Death Race, and Edgar Wright’s exhilarating Scott Pilgrim vs. the World have definitively presented gamer fantasy as an allegory for real life. But Spielberg never gets to the irony of virtual reality’s vicarious experience — which Luc Besson already spoofed throughout Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. None of this story’s dramatic tensions — Wade’s rivalry with the corporate boss Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and a longed-for romance with Art3mis/Samantha (Olivia Cooke) — ever amounts to real-world awakening. Spielberg’s imagery makes one’s head spin without provoking thought. The finale is as trite as Bong Joon-ho’s in Okja. The desire to celebrate video games and pop junk is such an unrewarding idea that it makes The Lego Movie’s satire seem transcendent.
Spielberg’s insistence on this juvenilia after four demoralizing political films suggests a creative crisis.
Spielberg’s insistence on this juvenilia after four demoralizing political films suggests a creative crisis. While The Post looked and felt tossed-off, Spielberg is clearly applying himself here, as shown in the immediacy of the lead performances. Wade’s anxiety is conveyed through Sheridan’s awkward-age pubescence, and he’s ideally paired with Cooke, who evokes the womanly promise of Deborah Van Valkenburgh and Carla Gugino (the film’s true movie-geek Easter egg). Though Spielberg’s genius has been missing of late, it shows up in the film’s one great, dramatically adroit image, when Wade confronts Sorrento. The face of the villainous adult is reflected in Wade’s visor — right between the boy’s eyes — perhaps a prophetic image of Wade’s unconscious self. That one shot surpasses all of The Last Jedi.
Marvel fanboys who are unaccustomed to action-movie panache will probably be wowed by Spielberg’s ten-minute gaming race, an extended tour de force. Parzival and other virtual-reality gladiators speed past one another, crashing through explosions and obstructions that could be a condensed history of our collective pop-culture detritus — from King Kong to Jurassic Park. This sequence, patterned after Spielberg’s dazzlement in The Adventures of Tintin, is so advanced that it seems post-cinematic. Laughter is cut short by awe. Super-video-game images hurtle by, beyond dream logic, into a realm of pop phenomenology where nothing appears as it seems. Each phantasm can morph or combust, resulting in either doom for the player or a reward of points or coins (with spangly bursts of enthusiasm like those Edgar Wright depicted as visual onomatopoeia in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World).
This demolition derby suggests a kinetic version of A.I.’s Flesh Fair — but without the moral or emotional consequences. It’s a breathless bender that, as it goes along, hollows out Parzival’s symbolic quest for an unspecified holy grail. The pell-mell action never pauses so that we can consider how this relentless excitation rattles the senses. And that, tragically, is how gaming’s trash pop culture has deprived several generations of spiritual reflection. It merely reflects their alienation (which was the underlying theme of Anderson’s Death Race but here is virtually forgotten).
The fallacy at the heart of Ready Player One is that Wade’s win as Parzival takes on sentimental, if not philosophical, dimensions; that the puzzlingly violent razzle-dazzle workout prepares its characters for life; and that gaming implicitly provides new cognitive patterns for its players. Spielberg immerses himself in the delusion that virtual reality equates to cinema, the photographic reflection of life. Although the film moves with Spielberg’s signature flair, it is slowed down intellectually when Wade’s anxiety and desperation are replaced with an unreal commitment to demigod Halliday and his ersatz principles. The “fun” becomes meaningless.
Ready Player One’s concept is so apologetic about pop-culture deception that it is kryptonite for a director who doesn’t apply all his intelligence or discover anything new. Note how the pop-music cues feign nostalgia: Spielberg’s synthetic Saturday Night Fever homage should rightly refer to Michael Jackson’s Thriller (a genuine civilizing phenomenon that belongs to the film’s ’80s gestalt); it might have elevated the film’s concept of pop-culture bliss. This pop jamboree demands satire, but Spielberg doesn’t go there, either for fear of losing his audience or because the movie is fundamentally empty.
A once-great filmmaker has taken on a new avatar less heroic than Parzival. It is the avatar of a pandering crowd-pleaser. Spielberg, the D. W. Griffith of the sound era — who ironically, when the politically correct putsch began in 1999, turned his back on Griffith by failing to speak up as the Directors Guild of America stripped Griffith’s name and legacy from its awards — now celebrates Hollywood’s most craven tendencies. The crowd-pleaser has outdone himself.