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Film Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One (2018; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

Ready Player One is about a dystopian socioeconomic reality existing alongside a utopian technological fantasy. Notorious as a desperately obsessive compendium of 1980s popular culture featuring namedropped references to almost countless movies, television shows, video games, comics, and other media products (key moments include the protagonist winning a game of the ’80s arcade staple Joust and re-enacting an entire scene from the Matthew Broderick movie WarGames word-for-word), Ernest Cline’s 2011 science fiction novel is quite divisive among pop culture geek fandom for these “remember this?” nostlagia bombs as well as for the mid-level stalker-ish behaviour and toxic masculinity of its main character, arrogant teenaged super-gamer Wade Watts. I haven’t read it, but film adaptation nut and YouTuber Dominic Noble has, so check out his (spoiler-ful) video on it if you want to know more (he also reviewed the film and how it differs from the book, which you can watch here; I may borrow from his expertise here and there in my write-up, especially as regards book content).

What emerges from the 2018 movie adaptation of Ready Player One co-written by Cline and veteran screenwriter Zak Penn and directed by Steven Spielberg (whose work is treated reverently in the book, as a giant of 1980s American cinema, flattery that no doubt interested him in helming the film) is that Cline’s world-building details and his narratives themes contain, or possibly unwittingly conceal, a noticeable if tonally neutered critique of contemporary American post-capitalism and its subordinate culture industry dominated by intellectual property juggernauts slugging it out for overwhelming box office grosses and fleeting attention primacy in the cultural discourse. Jenny Nicholson’s video critique of the movie finds Cline’s breathless invocation of pop culture touchstones superficial and meaningless; I’m not sure I disagree, but in the margins beyond authorial intent, there’s some grim critical considerations going on as concerns the implications of the dystopia/utopia dichotomy of the text.

Ready Player One is set in 2045, where a series of social and economic calamities (brought about by an energy crisis in the novel, the Corn Syrup Droughts and Bandwidth Riots are mentioned as catalysts for collapse in Watts’ voiceover narration, which sound buzzy and punchy until you think about them for a second and they cease to make much sense) have reduced the world to widespread poverty, starvation, and general deprivation. Our Marvel Comics name-alike hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in a vertical trailer park slum in Columbus, Ohio known as the Stacks, a low-income neighbourhood of mobile homes rising in stacked towers of precarious-looking scaffolding. Having lost his parents in the aforementioned catastrophic unrest, Watts lives with his aunt (Susan Lynch) and her latest ne’er-do-well boyfriend (Ralph Ineson). But where he really lives, where everyone in the world spends their most important time, is in the Oasis, a virtual-reality massively multiplayer online role playing game that constitutes an entire alternative universe as well as the sole remaining driver of the global economic system (in the book, it’s where education happens as well; Wade attends high school in the Oasis).

A vastly expanded and monopolistic hybrid of a MMORPG like World of Warcraft and something like alternate-reality social digital network Second Life, the Oasis features avatars of players vying for rewards and coins that carry real-world value. In addition to its economics being based on in-game micro-transactions, the Oasis is a single-life game for players; if your avatar dies in the Oasis, it is rebooted from the beginning, depriving players of all the leveling-up, improvements, items, and rewards that they have earned and, in many cases, spent real money on. Noble, a seasoned gamer, sharply criticized both the micro-transaction aspect of the Oasis, a charging method from video game developers that is extremely unpopular in gaming circles, and the single-life conceit, feeling that losing everything you’ve built up for your avatar at one stroke would be such a harsh result as to prevent the Oasis from achieving such widespread popularity. What this system does accomplish, however, is create a large class of players buried in crushing in-game and out-of-game debt, which they must then work off in corporate workhouse debtors’ prisons called Loyalty Centers, toiling virtually in the Oasis until their debt is paid off (which for many is never).

The Loyalty Centers are run by a massive tech corporation known as Innovative Online Industries (IOI), who under the leadership of scheming CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, who is far better than such thankless bad guy roles but carves out some decent moments) seek to control and further monetize the Oasis with intrusive, blanketing advertising. Control is competitively up for grabs because a key design element of the Oasis, and the main video game-style quest in the story, is a challenge open to all users to gain sole dominion over the Oasis for themselves by solving three puzzles planted as “easter eggs” (a term for hidden secrets for fans to seek out in games or even other visual media) by its late mad-genius creator, a widely-revered Steve Jobs-like tech savant named James Halliday (Mark Rylance, who only turns out for Spielberg now, it seems), before his death. Players known as “gunters” (shortened from “egg hunters”) make finding Halliday’s concealed clues and keys their main goal in the Oasis, studying his memories for hints in a library/museum archive and memorizing his pop-culture obsessions, certain that the answers to the puzzles lie there. Halliday’s obsession with 1980s pop culture serves to explain the avalanche of said references in the book, if less so in the movie (which I will not entirely spoil but tend to run more towards the IP owned by the film’s production studio, Warner Brothers; no Star Wars stuff, for example, as that IP is owned by rival Disney). The movie’s challenges in this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-derived contest for heirdom are not not based in pop cultural references, but they link more closely with Halliday’s personal social interactions, especially those involving his fallen-out business partner and Oasis co-creator Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg).

Wade’s Oasis avatar is called Parzival; the name is a reference to the Grail myth, though possibly more via John Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur film than original Arthurian stories, knowing the source; the Holy Hand Grenade from Monty Python’s The Holy Grail also makes an appearance. Parzival is a dedicated gunter, alongside his hulking virtual best friend Aech (Lena Waithe, whose real-life identity as an African-American woman is supposed to be a twist but is ill-concealed) and his sometimes allies the samurai-esque Japanese brothers Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao). Early in the film, Watts/Parzival encounters another legendary gunter, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), during a run at the first quest challenge, a car race through a virtual Manhattan involving exploding obstacles, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and King Kong vaulting off the Empire State Building to smash any racer who lasts to the cusp of the finish line.

Although Parzival and Art3mis are rivals for the keys and the final egg, they begin a flirtation/romance that proceeds quite precipitously (the book takes place over a less compressed time period than the movie, and Watts goes full stalker after Art3mis breaks it off with him, which the movie at least avoids). They are aligned against Sorrento and his army of corporate-owned gunter avatars known as Sixers (so called because they have numbers and not names as Oasis callsigns; both Nicholson and Noble note that they are dubbed “Suxxors” by Wade and his friends in the book, a dumb online-gamer detail that feels true and is therefore missed in the movie), as well as a pair of shadow-agents: a champion-level online operator known as i-R0k (T.J. Miller) who Sorrento sends after Parzival after the latter solves the first egg challenge, and a real world super-investigator named F’Nale (Hannah John-Kamen) who tracks down Art3mis’ real-world alter ego, Samantha, who is active in a resistance movement against IOI’s socioeconomic tyranny.

Ready Player One proceeds as a video-game-style sci-fi adventure, but for once the saturating CGI effects of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster actually have a realistic and believable context: the Oasis is an entirely digital world, after all, therefore everything looks like a computer game because it is one. Spielberg doesn’t let the computer-generated artifice get in his way, though; he delivers a fairly cracking entertainment that mostly holds together at the seams, and his technical mastercraft is impeccable as always, aided by his usual cinematographer Janusz Kamiński (yes, the same man who shot Schindler’s List also shot a movie in which Mechagodzilla fights a Gundam). Pay attention to the circular movement of the camera as Parzival approaches his vehicle (the DeLorean from Back to the Future, natch) before the first race scene; Spielberg and Kamiński can impart fluidity and drama to even a small connective moment like this. Their craft, elegance, and cinematic savvy are evident in the final battle between IOI and the unified independent gunters (which controversially includes the Iron Giant blowing shit up despite being an animated metaphor for non-violence) and especially in the memorable second key challenge set-piece, set inside an impeccable, callback-heavy re-creation of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining that is a clear film-geek highlight (and more fodder for thinkpieces about Spielberg’s fraught relationship with Kubrick’s legacy, whom he met and befriended on the Overlook Hotel set; as if more such fodder was needed after A.I.).

Ready Player One is not without its problems. Wade and Samantha’s relationship in the real and virtual worlds is a little dull and stilted and lacking in real building emotion from the young actors, and indeed everything happening in the Oasis is far more interesting and engaging than any of the real-world conflicts. Spielberg is a master film craftsman, but he has his favoured conventions and slots them in dutifully, especially at the film’s climax: he cannot help but drop a blatant audience-signalling shot of cheering observers to underline the final moment of triumph, and police arrive to collect the villain at the end for purely formulaic reasons. This latter throaway moment raises any number of questions about the nature and power of actual government authorities in this world that are not remotely addressed in the rest of the movie, which casts the corporate giant IOI as the main antagonistic and coercive locus of power.

Indeed, the Oasis and IOI are the vehicles for post-capitalist critique in Ready Player One, which again may not be entirely intentional and indeed may cut against the grain of Cline’s purpose. It isn’t hard to read Cline’s 2045 context as a sci-fi commentary on contemporary modern America, with its crumbling social and physical infrastructure, massive socioeconomic inequality, smothering corporate dominion, debtors’ servitude, and all-consuming media monoculture focused increasingly on technologically-enabled escapist fantasies (Noble mentions that all of this, in addition to the book’s background of most political leaders being shallow, spotlight-seeking television personalities, struck him as far more real and applicable in the context of the 2018 film release than that of the 2011 book release). The Oasis is great, immersive fun in the in-film diegetics and for audiences to observe, but it’s an opiate of the people writ extremely large (its name gestures to this: a literal wellspring haven of refreshment and pleasure in an arid and unforgiving desert environment). Spielberg, Cline, and Penn seem to acknowledge this to some extent, dropping a unplugging-time note in the denouement about the future of the Oasis under its new management (as Noble observes, however, shutting down the world’s main animating economic, social, entertainment, and educational engine for two weekdays each week would have major consequences).

This older-generation moral to the young to shut off the video games and spend some time outside dammit occupies space in Ready Player One alongside a core theme about how authority, authenticity, and belonging are understood by online gaming communities and even weaponized as self-justifying mechanisms and against inclusionary efforts in such communities. Halliday’s easter egg challenge, at least in theory, is a Willy Wonka-esque test of worthiness in an heir to control of the Oasis; the victor will, by completing Halliday’s byzantine esoteric challenges like a tough game on a high-difficulty setting, prove themselves to be a better and more authentic avatar gamer than anyone else. There’s a self-righteous gatekeeping habit to online gamer communities noted by video essayist Harris Brewis (a.k.a Hbomberguy) in his superb video on gamer-centred webcomic Ctrl+Alt-Del that is encoded in Ready Player One‘s larger conflict between scrappy, talented independent gunters and the deep-pocketed infinite resources of the underhanded corporate giant IOI, a conflict literally embodied in the conflict between Wade and Sorrento. The former logs onto the Oasis in a makeshift repurposed abandoned van, the latter has a futuristic top-of-the-line gaming rig in his office but has to jot down his password on a sticky note because he can’t remember it. Watts has studied and memorized every detail of Halliday’s life and compendious pop culture obsessions and honed his skills in hours of gaming labour, while Sorrento can only trade John Hughes movie references with Watts if he has a team of dozens of lab-coated IOI-employed researchers feeding him the info via earpiece. Watts calls out Sorrento as a fake corporate vulture, unconcerned with anything but growing profits and not sufficiently appreciative of the animating truths and fulfilling experiences of the Oasis and Halliday’s pop-cultural overlay in the way that Watts is, as a true gamer.

Hbomberguy highlights a didactic Ctrl+Alt+Del comic ranting angrily about this precise tense dichotomy between the consumers who self-identify as superior scholars of games and guardians of their ultimate cultural capital and see the corporate monoliths expending real capital and the labour of its employees into making those games for them as greedy, bottom-line-focused capitalists ready to deform the treasured experiences and betray the dollar-loyalty of these “real” gamers for profit. This gatekeeping impulse is not necessarily anti-capitalist in nature, and can easily be marshalled against perceived interlopers and unwanted intruders to the gaming world, especially women, minorities, and anyone who dares to challenge and shift the often toxic male power fantasies of the video game realm. These community practices and poses have led to far more problematic and antagonistic political views about diversity and progressivism in video games (ie. Gamergate and its spinoff ideological communities and pernicious effects) that has minted much of what is now known as the alt-right, one of the most disturbing and damaging political movements in the history of the internet. Ready Player One reproduces this dichotomy in its central narrative and thematic conflict uncritically, erecting a shorthand framework of intertwined morality and cultural savvy to establish IOI and Sorrento as the antagonistic force against authentic gamer Wade Watts and his friends. As with many corporate capitalist villains in blockbuster movies, there is little substantive in the ideological dimension of Sorrento and IOI that leaves space for their capitalist assumptions to be critiqued via an oppositional pedagogy, even if they do maintain their equity base via a sizable system of debt-burdened indentured servitude.

The centrality of this dialectic between consumer and producer amidst the gamer and geek culture context favoured by Ernest Cline in Ready Player One, book and film, reveals the inadequacy of any critical commentary in either text as well as the complicity of both texts in capitalist media processes. Cline, like his insert protagonist Wade Watts, doesn’t want to abolish or even reform the capitalist monoculture represented by the Oasis. He only wants to conquer it and thus prove his superiority in the enjoyment of it and in his comprehension of its cultural value. If dystopian narratives imagine exagerrated nightmare scenarios to highlight real social ills and utopian narratives imagine idealized scenarios to suggest how those ills might be ameliorated, Ready Player One, for all its screencraft and pure entertainment, is an oddly dissatisfying hybrid of the two. A utopian dystopia where endemic social problems don’t matter as much as beating a video game or quoting a line from a 1980s movie. Perhaps inadvertently, Ready Player One is a more biting critique of our culture than its creator could have ever intended or fathomed.

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews
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