In 2011 I picked up a new novel that had come highly recommended to be from friends both digital and in real life. I’ve always considered myself a geek, I mean, I run a blog that’s primarily devoted to the Simpsons and Batman. The book was blowing up, and was being hailed as some sort of holy grail of geek culture. That book, obviously, was Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. It sounded fascinating, and like something that would be right up my alley. And then I read the novel. Honestly, I enjoyed it in the moment. I ripped through the book in a single weekend, and had a pretty good time with it. It was full of references to things I enjoyed, and on the surface seemed to speak a similar language to me. But, almost as soon as I was done with the book, I started struggling with it. It wasn’t really about anything. It was so ephemeral, so fluffy that it left virtually no impact on me. And, as time went on, it really soured in my opinion. It had been a fine ride while it was happening, but the further I went from the weekend I read it the more I could accept that it wasn’t really a functioning narrative, it was little more than a reference delivery system. But, for whatever reason, it continued to be a hit. And, when a studio sees a novel hitting that crucial demographic of geeks who actually still obsess over movies, it’s just a matter of time until the book is adapted to a film. It was inevitable. What wasn’t inevitable, and what was honestly a complete surprise, was the fact that the adaptation would be helmed by someone with actual talent. In fact, it was downright confounding to learn that Steven Spielberg, one of the greatest directors of all time, and one of the creators of the very pop culture that Ready Player One so mindlessly regurgitated. It seemed like an utterly bizarre choice. But, it also seemed just weird enough to work. And, Spielberg certainly improved upon the source material. But Ready Player One still remains a mishmash of story elements that reveals something ugly and troubling about the current state of geek culture.
Ready Player One takes place in the dystopic future of 2045, a world that’s almost completely dominated by a virtual reality device known as the Oasis. People have almost completely given up on their actual lives, and spend a majority of heir time inside a fake world that’s built around pop culture. Especially because the creator of the Oasis, a man named James Halliday, has instituted an elaborate game in the Oasis. When he died he revealed that he placed an Easter Egg inside the world, and that if someone was able to complete three tasks that would prove you understood his vision, that person would gain control of the Oasis, and become the most powerful person on Earth. Thousands of people have devoted their lives to tracking down these eggs, including out protagonist, a young man named Wade Watts who lives in a slum in Columbus, Ohio and who calls himself Parzival in the Oasis. He and his friend Aech spend all of their time trying to solve the first challenge in Halliday’s quest, which no one has ever figured out. It’s a massive car-race through the streets of a constantly shifting city, full of impossible obstacles. No one has found a way to best the final obstacle, King Kong, but Wade is convinced there’s a secret. He pours over records of Halliday’s life, and ends up finding a clue. The secret isn’t to race, it’s to go backwards and reach a secret shortcut that spits you out past Kong. Wade is the first person to complete this quest, but he’s not the last. His friends Aech, Daito, and Sho quickly replicate his strategy, along with a woman known as Art3mis, a legendary Easter Egg Hunter. Wade and Art3mis begin a friendship, that slowly blossoms into a relationship during their quest for the Egg as the five winner of the competition become the most famous people in the world, and the targets of a massive company known as IOI.
IOI is an ominous organization that has designs on taking over the Oasis, and thus the world’s economy. Their CEO Nolan Sorrento is a diabolical lunatic who has an entire company devoted to spaming the Oasis in the hopes of finding the Egg, and now that people are finally making some progress, he devotes himself to destroying them. In game, and in reality. Sorrento attempts to kill Wade, blowing up the slum he’s living in, but he’s saved by a group of rebels who are fighting IOI’s control of the world, and whose numbers include a woman named Samantha who is actually Art3mis. And, now that they’re working together, the two figure out the next clue, and challenge. They meet up with Aeche, Daito, and Sho and head into a recreation of Stanley Kubrick’s the Shining where they find themselves in a position to save a woman who Halliday was in love with, but never had the courage to be with. Unfortunately, once the quintet gains the second key, Sorrento and IOI hit them even harder than before. They raid the rebels, capture Samantha, and Wade is again on his own. Until the real forms of Aeche, Daito and Sho arrive to save him. He works with his friends, and they locate the final puzzle, which is in control of IOI. It’s an Atari system, in a magical castle, and no one is quite sure what they’re supposed to do. Sorrento places a magical shield around the castle, making it so that his soldiers are the only ones who get a crack at the puzzle. So, Wade leads a revolution, convincing everyone in the Oasis to attack IOI and their forces. But, in the end, Samantha is able to escape her confines, and gain access to the Oasis, taking down the shield and giving Wade the chance to solve the final puzzle. He then comes face to face with a representation of Halliday, who gives him control of the Oasis with the warning to find time in his life for reality. Wade then takes over, with the help of his four friends, and begins running the Oasis like he’d always wanted to, while Sorrento and IOI are brought down for trying to kill a group of children.
Steven Spielberg is a talented director. That’s not up for debate. He makes good movies, and has a serious knack for taking what seems like a terrible idea and spinning it into gold. Which is why I had some hopes that this movie would somehow work. The source material is pretty rough, but while it seems weird that Spielberg would be the one to bring this hodgepodge of pop culture fetishes to life it also seemed like he was one of the few directors who could make it work. And, it’s certainly better than it had any right to be. But it’s still one of Spielberg’s weakest films. He had the good sense to strip away most of the plot elements of the movie, keeping the bare bones and then building better, more interesting set pieces in place of the tedious ones from the novel. But, especially with Ernest Cline being involved in the screenplay, the films falls into the same pitfalls that the novel ultimately landed in. It’s a very well-directed film that does manage to be a thrilling experience, in between throwing as much CGI nonsense at the view as it possibly can. The acting is generally fine, nothing too special, but I’m sure it’s incredibly hard to act in a film like this, where almost nothing is real and a majority of the time the character you’re portraying is some weird Anime reject. It’s an incredibly busy film, and one that’s stuffed to the gills with exposition and force-fed world-building, but Spielberg’s film-making skills to cause you to get swept up in the adventure. It’s just a shame that the story it’s all built around, and the morals expressed, are so unpleasant.
Ready Player One, in both of it’s forms, is narrative junk food. It’s easy, fast, and you get a pleasant feeling when experiencing it from all the references you catch. But, as soon as it’s over, you start to feel unfulfilled. Because there’s not much to it. The story isn’t anything special, it’s really just a combination of all sorts of different adventure stories, particularly Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But the real issue with the film, and the story in general, is the completely vapid and surface understanding of the pop culture that it purports to love. This is a world where everyone is completely obsessed with 80’s pop culture, but only in the sense that it’s things for them to reference. There’s no insight. Characters and icons are used haphazardly, just because they look cool. I think the most emblematic example of this is the fact that in the climactic battle they bring out an Iron Giant, and having it become a huge weapon, wiping out as many people as possible. And yet, the entire point of that film is that he can be more than a weapon. This film used the Iron Giant because he looks cool, without any interest in what he represents. It speaks to a larger issue with geek culture. In school we’re taught reading comprehension, learning what stories are about, and why they work the way they do. But, for whatever reason, those lessons aren’t often moved over to what we watch. Pop culture in general doesn’t get the insight it needs to by most people. Not enough people think about the stories that they ingest, instead just letting it glaze over them. This is a film that encourages a shallow obsession with pop culture, stuffing your mind with trivial facts while never diving in and actually thinking about it. It’s Evangelical Fandom, and it’s one of the worst aspects of modern fandom. Ready Player One is a film that perpetuates the idea that knowing things about pop culture is just as good, if not better, than understanding things about pop culture, and it’s legitimately sad to see.
Ready Player One was written by Zak Pen and Ernest Cline, directed by Steven Spielberg, and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2018.
Categories: Reel Talk