Comparisons between films and television shows are fraught and often flawed, but it’s interesting to think about Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, a kind of gee-whiz dystopia (as contradictory as that sounds) about the struggle to control an immersive virtual-reality platform in 2045, alongside the TV serial Westworld, about an android revolt in a near-future Old West theme park, returning soon for its second season on HBO.
Both stories deal with the big questions that hang over our expanding capacity not just to entertain ourselves but to immerse ourselves completely in artificial worlds. Both are exercises in self-critique: Westworld is an implicit judgment on its own genre, the prestige TV show sold with ample gore and nudity, while Ready Player One portrays a future in which the pop culture ephemera of 1975–85 — a period that also happens to have been the peak of its director’s powers — have become a three-dimensional empire overshadowing reality itself. And both have as their plot engine an aging creator and his regrets: Dr. Robert Ford, the Westworld impresario played by Anthony Hopkins, who sets the robot revolt in motion, and Mark Rylance’s James Halliday, the computer nerd who built the OASIS, the virtual world at stake in Ready Player One, and whose death set in motion a frantic scramble for his throne.
Like Ford, Halliday has a plan for what comes after his demise: The scramble for power takes the form of a series of games within his vast virtual domain, in which so-called gunters — short for “egg hunters,” after Easter eggs — look for clues and secrets and ultimately keys that will take them ever closer to the final challenge, in which they play to become the dead world-builder’s legal heir. Some of these gunters are themselves corporate drones, in harness for the sinister Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and his company, IOI, which wants to monetize the OASIS and reduce its addicted users to debt peonage. Others are free spirits, young gamers such as Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, a wide-eyed blank) and his pals Aech and Art3mis. (These are their in-game handles, of course, since their real identities and the actresses who play them — Lena Waithe and Olivia Cooke — are revealed only later, in some of the movie’s occasional forays back into its unhappy, overcrowded Blade Runner–meets–the Midwest meatspace.)
Watts goes by “Parzival,” which is one of the few cultural references in the entire teeming OASIS that can’t be dated to the Carter or Reagan presidency. In the novel by Ernest Cline, apparently — I haven’t read it, fanboys, sorry — the hero’s quest is basically a straightforward test of his knowledge of insane tweenage-dork minutiae, and the idea that this VR landscape is a golden paradise worth saving is played pretty much straight.
In Spielberg’s hands, though, there is more shadow and subtlety: In his telling, all the clues and Easter eggs are associated with Halliday’s regrets, which have to do with love left unpursued and a friendship left to wither, and which paint the OASIS in darker tones, as a Neverland for a man who knew that he had failed, tragically, to become a real flesh-and-blood adult.
But here the comparison I drew with Westworld becomes a contrast. The TV show’s world is a very deliberate dystopia, but Spielberg doesn’t want to let Halliday’s shadow overwhelm a tale that’s basically supposed to be a lark — scrappy kids, wicked corporate types, the people defeating the oligarchy and keeping their racecar tracks and zombie battles free of pop-up ads forever. And as a director who’s always shied away from sex and violence (to his credit, in many cases), he especially doesn’t want to contemplate what human beings might do in this virtual landscape when they get tired of driving the DeLorean around a landscape out of Tron and dropping Monty Python references. So apart from a foray into the Overlook Hotel and a glancing reference to a digital brothel, the OASIS seems mostly like what VR would be without original sin — an endless video-game arcade, in which lust and sadism have been somehow controlled in ways they conspicuously aren’t in our more primitive online worlds.
Being an HBO show, Westworld often errs too much in the other direction, letting its critique of sadism and voyeurism blur into its own form of pay-cable pornography. But the essential theme encapsulated in its Shakespearean tagline, “These violent delights have violent ends,” has an integrity and consistency that’s ultimately absent from Ready Player One, which has way too much adventure-movie spirit in the foreground for a world-building exercise that’s simply horrifying every time you step back and consider its scenario in the full.
This is a recurring Spielberg problem: His skill and imagination let him do great work with dystopian material, but with the arguable exception of the Kubrick-shaped A.I., his temperament and instincts (and, perhaps, his budgets) carry him away from the conclusions that an effective dystopia requires. So we end up with movies such as Minority Report, brilliant but botched, in which, after all kinds of dark and brooding setup, you reach the optimistic ending and it feels ridiculous — Oh, they just turned off pre-crime? Suuure. (His War of the Worlds is another example of this problem, but there you can blame H. G. Wells.)
Ready Player One falls squarely into this Spielbergian category. From a certain angle, it’s the darkest story of its scale and budget you’re likely to see in theaters anytime soon. But the darkness of the subtext and the gee-whizness of the text are in deep, irreconcilable conflict with each other, and for all its entertaining moments the movie is demolished by their war.