The moment the world seems to have been waiting for is finally upon us: Ready Player One has been adapted into a movie. And with Spielberg at the helm, it can’t fail, right? Click to read on.
In the future of Ready Player One, instead of resisting the forces that make us poorer, unhealthier, and stupider, we just sort of gave up. At just the right time, a game developer named James Halliday launched a virtual chat and play universe called the OASIS, where people can basically do literally anything (including playing Minecraft some thirty years into the future, for some reason). That developer has died, and he hid an easter egg somewhere in the game for some lucky player to find. The one who does so will become master of the OASIS and win obscene amounts of money.
Enter Wade Watts, our young, plucky hero living in the Ohio slums who is determined to find the easter egg. He knows endless amounts of pop culture trivia, has studied Halliday, and gosh darn it, he’s a healthy-looking Anglo-American of pubescent age, all the things you need in a protagonist. There’s also a mega-corporation called IOI that’s trying to become the wealthiest corporation in the world by finding the easter egg, which apparently also runs in-house debtor’s prisons to enslave people. Oh, and a pretty girl named Artemis who is Wade’s main love interest, the two of them being thrust together with a suddenness that is more typical of a YA adaptation like The Maze Runner.
I’ll be honest with you: I have only read excerpts of the book, but what I have read just sucked. To Spielberg’s great credit as a seasoned director, if this movie deserves to be recognized for anything, it’s for translating drivel into a decent story.
I’ll start with the worst aspects of this movie first. First, the pacing. For much of the movie, things seem to be an awful hurry to try to get the viewer to the next plot point, so that nothing gets sufficiently developed. The romance between Parzival and Artemis is a great example, where in the space of twenty minutes of film time, they go from Artemis blowing off Parzival’s pathetic attempts at flirting to reciprocal flirting with each other, to an actual love confession from him to her. For this, as with other aspects of the story, there was never much of a foundation built, so things that could have been explained with just a line of narration seem to come at you out of left field.
I was also a bit put off in the beginning by the “white male Jesus” nature of the main character, Wade Watts. This could be the fault of the source material, but I wouldn’t know. It took a bit of watching to realize that’s part of his character flaw: ultimately, he can’t do it alone, and every attempt to be the chosen one is met with failure.
The story itself is nothing new or innovative, really. It’s your classic resistance film, coming at a pretty timely moment in American history, naturally. It’s got action, laughs, and CGI. I will say: the action sequences, true to Spielberg form, are spectacular. The first race sequence has all the chaos of a real massively multiplayer competition.
But the story itself doesn’t pull any huge twists or deconstruct any of the usual tropes for its genre. Other than being current, it’s nothing special, right?
And yet there’s something amazing happening in the world of this film, which I have hinted at in other posts on this blog. Ready Player One is Vaporwave: The Movie. Pop culture artifacts – characters, quotes, items, and tons of other references – from just about every single time period and era in American pop culture have been decontextualized and dropped at random in this setting, which is exactly what vaporwave does for the songs and aesthetic elements it warps. See for example this quote from Grafton Tanner’s Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave And The Commodification Of Ghosts:
All time periods, all settings – everything is up for grabs in the endless archive of the Internet . . . Tracks that sample 1980s soft-rock radio hits are listed next to those borrowing from the pristine sounds of twenty-first century commerce, resulting in a true meltdown of historical boundaries.
Drowning in artifacts drawn from decades of corporate-created entertainment and characters, time itself disintegrates and “periods” in pop culture, such as they were, break down, as does the individual significance of each character, item, or reference itself. It’s exhausting, annoying, humorous, and unsettling, all the things vaporwave is supposed to be. The chaos of it all drives home just how empty our pop culture is of meaning and depth in the 21st century. Shorn of context and therefore meaning, it exposes these pop cultural icons and symbols of massive franchises such as Star Wars, WarCraft, the Iron Giant, and more as hollow idols of fandom devotion, built only to convince you to keep spending money.
Indeed, the theme of society drowning in pop culture is a driving force of this film. Almost every person in this world relates to their world by reference to pop culture trivia. Average people, not even geeks like Wade Watts, speak in a dialect of quotes, characters, and trivia knowledge. Their entire lives revolve around their shared worship of commercial works, especially deriving from nerd culture, with no frame of reference in the real world; they don’t know anything else.
It’s a reflection of what our own world has become. To quote Grafton Tanner again, “unrestrained capitalism has wiped any sort of meaning from society.” For the last couple centuries of human history, we struggled to liberate ourselves from our old gods and religions, which our ancestors believed they depended on to give their lives meaning and purpose. We freed ourselves, only to replace them with new gods: corporate-created pop culture.
As a result of our worship at the pedestal of the entertainment industry, we are starting to atrophy from our ability to relate to anything in a way that doesn’t depend in some form on what we all watched on Netflix or games we all played when we were younger. We derive meaning and purpose from them just as our ancestors did from religion.
In our uncertain and unsatisfying times, nostalgia is comforting like a religion would be, and the entertainment industry capitalizes on our collective yearning by pumping out nostalgia porn: remakes, reboots, revivals, and sequels that were supposedly decades in the making.
But like it or not, we wanted this and we asked for it. Like Halliday, we are in danger of retreating from the world into the safe cloisters of our beloved Spartans and heroes of Hyrule. We created these echo chambers and hermitages. As a result, our ability to socialize has atrophied thanks to this dependence (as well as on our dependence on electronics such as our smartphones, or the OASIS), and our ability to champion our causes and be activists for ourselves is not far behind. But without us being active in it, our world will cease to serve us and become a less livable place.
Therefore, the film posits, we must remind ourselves that our heroes from our favorite games, novels, movies, anime series, and more are not gods. Reality will always be more important, and we need to participate actively and fully in that life, because it’s the only one we have. We need to rediscover the balance between appreciation for pop culture and our now society-wide obsession with it. Because if we merely retreat to our cherished nostalgic joys and trivia, we are actually enslaving ourselves to it, and leaving the way open for those who would seek power to take it from us.
I hope all of that makes sense. There is so much more I could have mentioned in this review, including how eerily similar the IOI loyalty station setup is to de facto debtor’s prisons that are actually springing up in the real world, what with people becoming bankrupt and dying due to medical debt all the time in this country. The vague message about an emerging corporatocracy in the form of IOI (it’s not actually clear who runs the world in this film) also resonates with a modern audience. This may also tie into the themes above – they wouldn’t have been able to set up these loyalty stations if we had been vigilant citizens of a responsive democracy, now would they?
For all of these reasons and others, I give Ready Player One an 8 out of 10. Yes, an 8, for what should have been just a middling movie. It managed to coalesce the standout themes of its story in a way that actually produces an emotionally and intellectually powerful lesson in apathy and what is most important in life: to live it. I would expect nothing less of a Spielberg blockbuster. Thank you for reading. See you next week!
What did you think of the movie? Did it do a good job adapting the book? Do you think it conveyed a critical message about worshipping pop culture? Share your thoughts in the comments section!