This review will contain spoilers.
The eighties feels like it’s the decade that spawned that pesky thing called ‘nostalgia’. The rose tinted glasses of the seventies were discovered by upstart squirts who cringed at the idea of enjoying anything their parents would, so dove head first into whatever fantasy or science fiction books they could find in their local library, forgetting to come up for air. Author Ernest Cline took the notion of nostalgia to breaking point in his book Ready Player One, conjuring a future where it’s the currency of the world. Everybody lives in a virtual world that thrives on pop culture references, eighties music and ‘that character from that thing that you liked’. After climate change has destroyed society and the ‘bandwidth wars’ killed cities, corporations thrived on the exploitation of the worlds poorest. Enter ‘the Stacks’ – a downtrodden, ramshackle, vertical trailer park where everybody lives with their extended relatives and is in need of a shower. Instead of trying to ‘tear down the system’ and break the cycle of their lives, the citizens of ‘the Stacks’ are seemingly happier living in graduated versions of their parents basement. Yep, it’s gaming 24/7, with a virtual reality headset existing like a second skin. The architect of this digital wonderland (the Oasis) has died, leaving behind three keys. Whoever finds all three keys manages to take ownership of his company. So, um, Ready Player One.
Steven Spielberg is not a young man anymore. The verve and energy he had when creating era defining works like Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park has drifted away ever so slightly, being usurped by the excessive energy driven superhero films and bombastic space opera flicks. While he’s excited about the future of virtual reality, and concerned about the death of cinema, he’s also (shock, horror) just a little bit of a hypocrite. See, with Ready Player One, Spielberg appears to be asserting the notion that ‘capitalism is good’. Yeah, there’s a villain in the shape of the exceptionally dentured, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) – a man fitted with the finest scenery chewing teeth money could buy – but at the end of this digital saga, it’s heavily implied that the status quo of a mammoth all-seeing, all-conquering organisation is the way of the future and the best way forward for humanity. The virtual reality world of the Oasis makes the player the product, rather than the world itself. At the hands of Spielberg, he of Transformers producer fame, he with his hands in various video game company pies, this feels less like a warm hug, and more like the executioner selling you codeine to make the decapitation sting less.
Spielberg wants his cake, and wants to acknowledge that it’s a lie too. He can’t have both. At no point does Spielberg ever question the way the citizens of the world are happy to keep living with blinkers always on. His attempt at creating a middle ground where the house is burning down, but everybody is smiling because they at least get to play with their shiny toys while it happens, fails dismally. It partly fails because of the lionisation of the central ‘hero’ Parzival/Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) – a kid from the slums who can do no wrong, and just like everyone else, wilfully ignores the destruction of the world around him. Granted, the hero status bestowed upon Watts is, unfortunately, no different than that of Roy Neary. The main difference is that unlike Close Encounters, there’s precious few people calling Watts out on his shit. And the one who does call him out, inevitably becomes a love interest because of… well, look, this wouldn’t be the cinematic version of a teen boys fantasy if the girl with the cool birthmark didn’t fall in love with them.
Here’s the sticking point with Ready Player One. It thinks it’s smarter than it is, merely for name checking an eternity of pop culture references. It’s the cinematic version of The Big Bang Theory. Good, you can name the owner of the bike from Akira, top effort. In the world of Ready Player One, the way to pick up a girl is to wear your Buckaroo Banzai get up and have said girl say, hey, that’s Buckaroo Banzai. It’s a pandering mess of used tube socks and crumpled tissues that have been used to catch whatever ooze permeates from the viewer when they see (what they call in the biz) the next Easter egg that pops up on screen.
In one noxious scene, two characters try one up each other in a bid to see who knows the most about dead Oasis architect, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), by rattling off his favourite pop culture things. ‘His favourite music video is Aha, Take on Me!’ the fact battle concludes with. This is not character development, it’s a shopping list. The entirety of Ready Player One is made up of ‘I know that’ moments, or characters saying to one another things they would clearly already know.
Science-fiction often explores possible futures – Blade Runner 2049 asking whether androids can have kids is a fascinating one, and on the flipside, Fahrenheit 451 is one fuelled by fear, proposing a world where books are destroyed on sight. Cline’s future is one where the youth of tomorrow have given up on standing up for their rights, and have submitted to the IP overlords. As long as they keep consuming media, it’ll be ok. Sadly, signs of this fanatical IP love have spawned in society already, with Justice League diehard fans demanding others go and see the film at least six times in theatres so it’s successful. A moment early on shows a world in mourning as Halliday’s death is announced. In a haunting pan shot, we see children staring at their screens, tears streaming down their faces as the news rolls out. There are echoes of the swathes of people leaving wreaths and iPod’s outside Apple stores after Steve Jobs death. The almost religious adoration of brands is at fever pitch – so much so that you could almost imagine the plot of the inevitable sequel Ready Player Two focusing on the war between Marvel and DC fans.
The greatest moment of wilful ignorance is the existence of the titular giant from The Iron Giant. Brad Bird’s film is a heartbreaking one, with the story of a robot realising that he was built for one thing (destruction), and his decision to be the opposite of that. He wants to be a hero, not a harbinger of doom. Well, that’s gone out the window here as the Iron Giant is co-opted into a huge battle on a random ice planet, with him performing actions that his source-based self would never perform. Blasting away indiscriminately at enemies that are literal 101’s running around the place (see, ones and zeroes are the numbers that make up binary code, which is a form of coding) that explode into coins when they ‘die’, the Iron Giant of Ready Player One shows no remorse. It has become what it always feared it would become – the bringer of death.
‘Yeah, but, it’s just a film man, don’t take it so seriously’ is the usual response to this. Fine, it is just a film, but so was Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – a film that explored prejudice through the eyes of cartoon characters. There’s a dedicated fidelity to the personalities of each character – you don’t see Bugs Bunny randomly murdering another toon in an alleyway. Even 2017’s The LEGO Batman Movie managed to be moderately faithful to the characters it dragged from the pool to litter its narrative. What stopped Ready Player One from doing the same for the characters it cribs from other stories? Well, a world of pure imagination probably. After all, you’re only limited by how far you can imagine, and if everyone in this future world is drinking from the same trough, well, you’ll be stuck with what’s in the shallow well you get your water from. This is the world of DeviantArt brought to life. Bastardised versions of familiar characters put into strange positions. It’s chaotic and messy, and often incoherent – like you’re watching a six year old play with a bucket of Lego.
The visual noise and static that zips around like that Gremlin who became part of the electrical network in Gremlins 2: The New Batch (not a film referenced in Ready Player One, but boy could this film have used a Gremlin or three to fuck things up) is admittedly quite impressive. But we’ve long passed the point where mere visual ingenuity and inventiveness is enough to entertain. There needs to be worthwhile context for all the keystrokes that make this possible, and bless the pandering cotton socks of Ernest Cline with the gaze of lord of the Oasis James Halliday’s avatar Anorak, there simply isn’t a worthwhile narrative thrust other than ‘look at all this stuff I know’.
This is not to say that Ready Player One is without its merits. Mark Rylance plays James Halliday as if he is on the autism spectrum, even though the film appears to suggest that Halliday’s unfailing attention to video game consoles is the cause of his lack of interpersonal skills. Thanks to how good an actor he is, he manages to imbue Halliday with a level of humanity that the film desperately craves. Ben Mendelsohn’s nefarious business running, pop culture ignorant, Nolan Sorrento gets a few amusing moments, and Mendelsohn looks like he’s genuinely having a good time, so bully for him. An early car race sequence which features King Kong and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park (or, as the forty-something old men behind me felt the need to cry out ‘she was in Jurassic Park, but she’s also the T-Rex in Jurassic World’ – thanks wikiman) kicks the whole run of shenanigans with a strange, oddly welcome energy that quickly dissipates.
The high point of Ready Player One also happens to shine a light on the reason why this film fails so frequently. Plot necessities have the bundle of ‘heroes’ having to traipse into the world of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. See, Stephen King hated Kubrick’s version of The Shining, and James Halliday hated something as well. Oh the similarities are uncanny! Into the Overlook hotel they go. A slightly grainy, aged look washes over the film. This is the only point that it felt like Spielberg was actually enjoying what he was doing. There’s a playfulness that has Spielberg tinkering with Kubrick once again, turning the haunted hotel on its head and throwing the ignorance of the ‘heroes’ in their face. It’s here that the IP pushes back, forcing its world logic on the ‘heroes’. Part of what made Inside Out such a joyous flick to watch was seeing the different aspects of the mind brought to life. The land of abstract thought was genuinely hilarious. If only that kind of creativity was brought to the rest of Ready Player One. The Shining sequence is a genuine high point that makes you wish that the film were operating at this level all the time.
And it could have! Given the immense array of pop culture items on offer, it’s disappointing that the actions devolve to simply being monkey see, monkey do. A character holds a boombox over their head because that happened one time in a film. The dance floor from Saturday Night Live (a film that explores toxic masculinity) appears, just because the heroes of Ready Player One need to dance. Again, it’s not enough to simply show that these things exist, they actually have to have a reason to be there. In the opening diatribe that sets the irrelevant plot on its course, we see the existence of a myriad of different worlds that could have been truly exciting and interesting to see. The camera flits past Minecraft world – and for a brief moment I thought of the possibilities of seeing Steven Spielberg play with that environment. Heck, there’s even a shot of Batman climbing Mt Everest – a throwaway gag that feels like it was hinting at a major pivotal moment later on. Chekov’s Batman if you will. But, it’s not to be. For all the references to John Hughes films, there’s nary a high school in sight. Outside of the Overlook Hotel, the environments are mostly bland and unexciting. If the world of the Oasis is one that people want to escape to, then it stands to reason that it should be tonally different from the world they’re escaping from.
Ready Player One is to pop culture, as Fifty Shades is to BDSM. It’s wilfully ignorant of the toxic world it presents, seemingly only focused on providing fodder for the endless amount of YouTube videos that’ll inevitably pop up like an acne outbreak, counting off the millions of different Easter eggs that you missed, and eagerly dictating the ending to you.
Criticising Ready Player One has proven to be a dangerous path to tread. Fans of the book, or fans of pop culture in general, take any negative note about the film as a personal attack on them. They retaliate with all manner of nonsense. ‘This isn’t for you!’ ‘You try too hard to sound smart.’ ‘You’re a paid shill!’ ‘You just hate blockbusters.’ ‘You obviously didn’t read the book.’ ‘You went into the film knowing you’d hate it.’ Critics going in to a film knowing they’ll hate a film are as bad as fans going in knowing they’ll love it. If the key is to address and appreciate a film on its own merit rather than what it’s based on (or, in Ready Player One’s case, what it’s name checking), then Ready Player One is the supreme litmus test for all.
While I don’t have the answers as to why there seems to be a supreme level of aggression directed at those who disagree with the fanboys of the world (see, that’s a nod to Ernest Cline’s previous theatrical effort in 2009 where a bunch of Star Wars fans try to steal a copy of The Phantom Menace before their pal dies), I do have the weariness and wherewithal to ignore these ravings. The antagonism directed at Star Wars: The Last Jedi and director Rian Johnson for not following the hate spewers predetermined path is just another sign of toxic fandom coming to drag everyone down. If it’s not ‘fuck the critics’, it’s ‘fuck the studios’. If it’s not ‘fuck the studios’, then it’s ‘fuck everyone else’. It’s like a stressed snake anxiously consuming its own tail in the hope that it’ll fix its situation. Nobody wins.
If people are eager to be defensive and, in turn, aggressive over the entertainment they consume, rather than being concerned about the far reaching corporations of the world, or really any other real world issue, then so be it. Entertainment is a wonderful form of escapism, but when that escapism becomes the only thing you engage with, well then what do you escape to? On top of that, if any criticism of the pop culture item of your choice has you steaming at the ears, then there are deeper issues at play that need to be explored with some help. Wade Watts fits into this mould with disturbing clarity – when his ‘mother’s sister’ is killed, he spends all of two seconds mourning her passing before shrugging and heading along his journey. The lack of genuine ‘adults’ in this world is a strange, yet fitting, occlusion. The film ends with the suggestion that people will be forced to engage with the world around them – except, only on Tuesdays and Thursdays when the Oasis is switched off. Long gone is the notion that ‘weekends are for families’.
Steven Spielberg mentioned in a recent interview that ‘I haven’t made an adventure movie in a long time, a movie that is basically for the audience, not so much for me as much as it is me wanting to give the audience everything they want and perhaps more’, and it feels like he’s done exactly that. Spielberg wants to eat his cake and admit it’s a lie too. He’s given the modern generation exactly what they want – a Rick & Morty blockbuster by way of The Big Bang Theory. All that’s missing is a Bazinga and a Pickle Rick to really seal the deal.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn
Writers: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline