On pop culture reduced to self-serving trivia, avatars as impenetrable personal statements, and the hollowness of Ready Player One's affections
Ready Player One Warner Bros.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, based on the novel by Cline
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Mark Rylance, Hannah John-Kamen, Win Morisaki and Simon Pegg
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 20 minutes / 2.39:1
March 29, 2018
(out of four)
In the spirit of Francois Truffaut's famed sentiment about war films: Perhaps it's impossible to make a movie that's anti-corporate control of pop culture when you're using a giant corporate machine - in which pop-culture icons owned by, and directly representative of, other corporate machines are uncritically celebrated, worshiped, even co-opted as personal identities by practically the entire world - to do so.
Almost by default, Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One is conflicted about its relationship to the brands, characters and franchises that ubiquitously populate its world and attach themselves to almost every detail of the narrative. It's a good thing the movie is being distributed by Warner Bros. rather than Disney or 20th Century Fox, otherwise the notion of a mighty corporate behemoth trying to monopolize control of a conglomerated pop-culture empire being the villain may have accidentally reframed the entire story as an ironic self-own. This movie has a hard enough time figuring out what it wants to say as it is.
What's at stake - what is to be cherished, protected, saved - is the OASIS, an infinite virtual-reality network that has become the dominant form of recreation, communication and consumerism in a beleaguered mid-21st Century world. It's pop-culture incarnate: movies and TV shows, music and music videos, video games and sporting events and graphic novels all brought to life in a digital playground in which users game, explore, dance, fight, hang out, party, experiment, travel, meet new people, or just get laid. Be anyone, do anything. An extravagant virtual costume ball perpetually building on itself.
Like a billion or so other people worldwide, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) spends most of his time plugged in, primarily focused on a seemingly impossible scavenger hunt whose ultimate reward is full control of the OASIS itself, courtesy of the late trillionaire tech genius, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who invented the place. Wade's biggest adversary is the video-game juggernaut IOI - personified by its ruthless CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn*) - which has put unparalleled resources and manpower into finding the three keys Halliday hid somewhere in the OASIS before anyone else does.
* For some reason, Mendelsohn is forced to wear Matt Dillon's There's Something About Mary teeth for the role, a decision that seems to have been made for its own, awkwardly visual sake. He doesn't play the role as a dapper corporate absurdity, but as a more straightforward, down-to-business model of calm, ruthless ambition. He doesn't even smile - he smirks. What are the teeth even there for? He's forced to talk through them, talk around them, to get his words out. What a bizarre handicap to give an actor. I'm confused as to why we're seeing this kind of conspicuous overproduction from Spielberg lately. Last year it was the grand exhibit of terrible wigs in The Post, now a row of unnecessarily big, unnecessarily white, unnecessarily perfect teeth for the best actor in his entire Ready Player One cast.
The most dedicated players are known as Gunters - short for [easter] egg hunters - and include, among others, Wade's best friend Aech (Lena Waithe) and the digitally idealized girl of Wade's dreams, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), an enigmatic legend of the Gunter community. (Wade's online persona is Parzival, by the way.) The OASIS - and all the intellectual property and personal data that inhabits it - is such a dominant force in this economy that, once a company like IOI gets its hands on it, Sorrento and his fellow executives can control ... well, everything.
The thing is: This place that represents the things people love - and that has made experiencing what they love more accessible, more interactive, more directly personal than ever before - is, in a very real sense, the problem. A self-perpetuating one, both symptom and cause. People have retreated to the OASIS as an escape from a world short on resources, and jobs, and hope. And those people have become obsessively reliant on the OASIS at the expense of daily living, so the world itself has been largely abandoned. The film rarely finds the time to wrestle with that, or any other, contradiction. It does (eventually) make the case for moderation, for going outside, for embracing the reality of the world we live in rather than the one(s) we create. But that real world it tries to make the case for doesn't, practically speaking, really exist in Ready Player One. We see Wade's Columbus, Ohio shantytown of stacked caravans and a few other glimpses of a dusty grey post-industrial America. (The shiny corporate extravagance at IOI headquarters is another story.) But the rest of our time - encompassing the majority of the film's important events - is spent online. Virtual existence is so predominant that we never get much sense of what reality even is ... aside from bad, poor, dystopian, hopeless - adjectives that merely give an abstract sense of whatever it is the human race has collectively decided to escape. The world is so terrible that everyone is desperate to shut it out - to the extent that the very apparatus for escape is a driving force of the global economy - yet the film has next to nothing to say about that world. Least of all how saving the OASIS would make any impact toward rebuilding it.
Ironically - and I realize this is partly a matter of personality - the film's offline reality, dingy as it might be, felt like the escape. I found myself relieved every time the story left the OASIS. Not that it doesn't have its charms - it does! - but, among other things, it's not a particularly good medium for anything other than spectacle. For its pop-collage production design and its hybridized theme-park / video-game action, sure. For anything more intimately involving the characters, absolutely not. The whole place is such a cacophony of visual noise, it quickly reaches a tipping point where it becomes a lot more unpleasant than the trailer parks and warehouses and rooftops and even chilly corporate offices we get offline.
This is especially true of the characters' avatars, at least those designed to look more or less human, including dramatic leads Parzival and Art3mis. In action, in motion - when they become intertwined with their surroundings, symbols in and of this digitized hallucination and its cartoon rules - they're a natural fit. But in more casual OASIS settings, watching them walk and talk, emote or react, flirt and kiss and dance, it's alienating in all the typical ways human CGI characters are alienating. In this case the Uncanny Valley is a feature rather than a bug, but since we're meant to be getting so much of our emotional information from the OASIS scenes - particularly between Parzival and Art3mis (née Samantha Cook) - it becomes a bug regardless, and a major one. So much between these two characters is expressed primarily or exclusively through their digital forms - personalities, fears, arguments, flirtations, body language. An entire (flimsy) romance develops between the two, and we're meant to take it seriously despite a fundamental absence of - almost an impossibility of - any kind of chemistry. (If the script had given the two more to do, and they'd been able to better connect on an intellectual or emotional level, this would be a moot point. But no, the film specifically attempts to use their "physical" forms as the mode of expression for their feelings. It's mind-bogglingly ineffective.)
Whatever's happening in the Parzival/Art3mis (or Wade/Samantha) relationship, it's taking place in the space between who they are and who they present themselves to be in the OASIS. But except in the most cursory ways (i.e. Art3mis telling Wade in one scene that he doesn't really know who she is or what she looks like), Spielberg ignores that gap, taking every glance and gesture and processed feeling at its (unavoidably creepy) face value.
Even beyond the romance, or the expressiveness of the characters as they are primarily depicted, there's a more profound disconnect between person and OASIS persona that Ready Player One fails to reconcile - and which speaks directly to the film's failure on a character level. How users present themselves in the OASIS is such a personal thing - the expression of their digital selves being a matter a careful cultivation and deliberate selection. People have complete command over how they are seen. On a superficial level, that is. And it's that superficial level that the film, in the OASIS, can never get beneath. Wade's persona, Parzival, is a good-looking guy with sleeve tattoos and wavy blond hair and a sleeveless denim jean jacket and he drives a DeLorean. All of that means something to Wade, on a personal level. To us, he's just a guy with sleeve tattoos and wavy blond hair and a sleevelss denim jean jacket who likes the movie Back to the Future. The power of the OASIS, we're told, is personal identity - specifically how it's wrapped up with what we choose to interact with, what we love. Yet just watching these avatars floating around the OASIS from the outside, they don't translate into anything beyond, at best, superficial totems of fandom. The film is intrinsically detached from its characters but doesn't realize it - or at least doesn't know what to do about it. The now-cliched criticism about moviegoing experiences that feel like watching other people play video games has rarely been more appropriate.
While the OASIS has essentially endless possibilities, gaming was the closest thing to Halliday's heart, and thus it was no surprise that he turned the fate of his empire over to the most labyrinthine game ever concocted, in the best video-game apparatus ever built. It's The Great Race with higher stakes but much less interesting personalities. Give me the personalities any day of the week.
Winning this particular race means digging through the archives of Halliday himself, including his personal history (whatever was recorded for posterity, at least) and, most importantly, the pop-culture knowledge he accrued during his lifetime. For years he meticulously logged everything he watched, played, read or listened to. Somewhere in all that knowledge is a small string of clues that will unlock the keys to his kingdom.
Of course, such a vast amount of pop-culture knowledge doesn't require the mind of a rich benevolent genius ... which brings me to this movie's source. Ready Player One is based on Ernest Cline's embarrassing novel of the same name - and while ordinarily I wouldn't bother discussing source material, I'm making an exception here because the specifically corruptive ways the book treats mass culture are directly responsible for the film's unresolved contradictions. Essentially, I'm blaming the novel for the movie's most fundamental failure more than the filmmakers themselves. Spielberg is guilty of choosing material that sort of boxed him into a corner. Like King Vidor adapting The Fountainhead. I mean what the hell's he supposed to do with that thing.
Ready Player One the novel is popular art seen in its most vulgar, most shallow, most pathetic light - a poorly written, narcissistic repository of pop-culture knowledge that would mistake an encyclopedia for an exegetical dissertation. Without realizing it, the book is deeply cynical toward the pop culture it loves so much, because it treats it as little more than trivia. I could answer that unintentional cynicism by pointing out that, in a sense, Halliday - as much as both movie and book celebrate his purity as a fan and gamer - is the story's hidden villain. After all, the elaborate game he designed plunged the world deeper into squalor and addiction, and all because ... he wanted people to play a game? Because he wanted people to get to know him in a way most people during his lifetime never could? Because he couldn't just pick a worthy successor to will his company to? A deepening depression and near-catastrophic re-wiring of human consciousness is certainly a high price to pay for indulging a rich guy's mostly pointless final wish.
But I know, I know. That's mostly just devil's advocate; I'm perfectly fine just accepting the scenario as the narrative device that it is. The more relevant point is that the whole book seems like a cheap ploy for Cline to announce all of his random pop-culture knowledge because he had nothing else to do with it. It's less a novel and more a long-form way for Cline to open up his personal vault. Dear Audience, here are all of the things I like. Which ... I mean, OK. Write what you know, I guess. But it all just feels reverse-engineered, the narrative built to justify an assemblage of names, dates, references and trivia nuggets, instead of the other way around. Usually when we see (or read) an information dump, it's in the service of some bigger picture; in this case, the information dump is its own point. The information dump is the endgame. Cline wrote a mad-lib in reverse.
And what makes some of it extra exasperating is the obviousness of so many of its references. It postures itself (and its narrator) as expert and hardcore geek ... and then gives us paragraph after paragraph of the most widely known** titles and catchphrases and iconic lines. At one point the narrator uses the phrase "Because knowing is half the battle" to prove his G.I. Joe expertise. This book is the "novelty item" section at Walmart. It's a shopping-mall kiosk. It would be like proclaiming yourself a fast-food aficionado because you go around shouting, "Where's the beef? Have it your way! I'm lovin' it."
** In fairness, there are more esoteric references in there floating around with all the obvious shit - as well as probably plenty I would never catch.
The references play better in visual form than in Cline's droning, monotonous prose, which at times reads like a list instead of a narrative. (Give Cline this much - like Liam Neeson before him, he's great at making lists.) (How's that for a cheap pop-culture reference? Two-in-one!) But more to the point, the whole philosophy of Ready Player One requires the substitution of insight for trivia - or otherwise mistakes one for the other.
I say this as someone who is an obsessive about my specific areas of interest. The studio would no doubt consider me part of this movie's target audience. I like knowing the dates and years and meaningless background esoterica of the movies, books, shows, sports I obsess over. I like quoting them. I like trivia. I like spotting references in, say, Hugo, or The Dreamers, or 30 Rock, or Inglourious Basterds. But let's use Tarantino as a point of comparison, since his work is famously full of references, homages, steals, reinterpretations. His celebration of his cinematic obsessions is matched by a willingness to actually engage with them - whether he's satirizing, interrogating, or otherwise commenting on the piece in question, he's always working them in a deliberate way; he makes his presence, and his interaction with his reference points, essential. He's affectionate, critical, thoughtful and at times unnervingly sharp in the way he uses, or adapts, existing ideas. Tarantino gets name-dropped as a Halliday/Cline obsession in the text of Ready Player One; clearly they didn't learn any lessons from him.
Allow me a personal analogy. When I was a kid, I memorized the back of every baseball card. Knew everyone's stat line from every season, memorized every batting stance (and whether they chewed gum, tobacco or sunflower seeds), knew where and when they were born. To this day I've retained a lot of it, through no added effort of my own. I remember at one point believing - indeed arrogantly, matter-of-factly asserting this about myself in the company of adults - that I just flat-out knew more about baseball (and, later, football) than they did. Dads, uncles, grandpas were all just amateurs as far as I was concerned. And all just because I had memorized the slugging percentages and birthplaces and batting-glove brands of every player. Now, if I were to have followed the Cline method, I would have remained permanently and deeply proud of this mental vault of trivia I had collected, despite (because of?) its utter lack of depth. I would have crowned myself a grand scholar on the subject of Sport. Ph.D., please. Maybe I would have even written a movie and, in the trailer, declared it "the holy grail of baseball-card trivia."
Or to make it even more abstract: I memorized listings from the TV Guide, for some reason, and therefore had (and often regurgitated) a wealth of knowledge about countless movies. Sure, I may not have ever seen this or that movie, but I damn sure knew how many minutes long it was, what year it came out, what three actors were in it, who its director was (whatever the hell a "director" was), what it was rated, and whether it was rated that rating for strong violence, sexual situations, or adult themes (whatever the hell "adult themes" were***).
*** The discovery of what a low threshold these TV Guide ratings systems had for their definition of something so tantalizingly grownup-sounding as "adult themes" was a crushing disappointment, a blow to my attempts to discover what I believed adult themes might very well, possibly, hopefully, be.
Point being: Ready Player One's preoccupation with the objects of its affection is, with occasional exceptions, planted directly on the surface. It's the literary equivalent of that guy who thinks he's gotten to know the girl because he knows her favorite movie and her favorite song and her favorite flower, but never bothered to take the opportunity to have a more substantive conversation with her, and worse, didn't even realize he had to. In fact, the movie contains an object lesson for that very thing. Wade is that guy. He falls in love with Art3mis because she's, in his world, a celebrity, and he thinks her avatar is cool, and they can quote some of the same things. Perfect woman. (Like Joseph Gordon-Levitt falling for Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer because she happens to like The Smiths, but multiplied by a thousand.) The film doesn't take any critical eye to Wade's perceptions of the people and things he supposedly loves. His love is the shallowest kind of all and the movie never figures this out. The boy getting the girl in Ready Player One is no different from the way the boy gets the girl in an Adam Sandler movie. Wish fulfillment, hero fantasies, fine, yes, I get it. But here it's just another indication of the movie not making an effort to scrutinize or understand its infatuations.
The film does feature a few outstanding setpieces - in particular a sequence set in The Shining's Overlook Hotel - and, though this seems redundant given that it's Spielberg we're talking about, it's so nice (and such a relief) to see a movie where the camera is always, always, intuitively in the right place. But in terms of worlds populated by icons of pop culture, this movie is far inferior to, say, The LEGO Movie (which deploys its many references in much cleverer ways than Ready), and an even further cry from the brilliant merging of worlds, genres and characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Ready Player One has a healthy suspicion of the corporate suits in control of pop-culture properties. There's a great scene in which Sorrento brings Wade into his office, butters him up and tries to recruit him, get rid of the competition. He tries to level with him, insisting that he's a long-time nerd. Just like you, Wade! He begins name-dropping one damn thing after another. I was obsessed with this game growing up; that movie changed my life. One of us. One of us. He sells the sell like a pro. Inevitably, it's revealed that he just has a team of geeks in his ear feeding him nuggets that make him sound like the real deal. The ruse wears off - or rather Wade sees through it.
By this point, the implications of this race are abundantly clear. What will the OASIS ultimately be? Open-source utopia or monopolized corporate luxury? But in the film's conflict between cynicism and idealism, I'm not sure it's on the right side. The un-exploited subtext is that the OASIS is already, to a large degree, a vaguely sinister social opiate. IOI and Sorrento may want to get their hands on the most important asset in history, but then again, they're kind of in charge already. They're a giant trying to become somewhat more giant. Is the dependence on the OASIS an ultimately unhealthy thing for society? the film glancingly asks. Yeah, probably. Shrug emoji.
This is a story told by optimists, but its largely uncritical approach to fandom, and to rabid consumption of pop-culture product, can't help but infect the entire film. Not to mention its inability to engage with it on anything but commercial or video-game terms. Treat popular art as utterly meaningless bullshit and it's probably going to register as utterly meaningless bullshit. The OASIS - both on page and screen - isn't just movies and music and games and sports. It's breakfast cereals and automobile brands. Sneakers and chain restaurants. Fashion designers and coffee houses. Basically anything with a logo and a wordmark. Be young, have fun, drink Pepsi. A Stanley Kubrick movie is on equal footing with Coors Light and Facebook and The Gap. It's all pop culture, it's all equal, it's all Content. Ready Player One was already a corrupt listicle masquerading as an adventure tale; now it's simply pivoted to video.