In The Society of the Spectacle, French theorist Guy Debord argues that mass culture MASTER CHIEF JUST SHOT FREDDY KRUEGER! which Jean Baudrillard further develops, most famously in Similarity and THAT’S THE BACK TO THE FUTURE THEME! But the most damning indictment of mass entertainment THE IRON GIANT! Adorno’s essay in A RUBIK’S CUBE! AN ATARI 2600! CHUCKY!
That’s kind of what it’s like watch Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, Ready Player One. Well, that’s what the good parts are like, anyway. The bad parts, which fill out the movie’s entire back half, consist of little more than no-stakes action and treacle that you would expect in a parody of a Spielberg movie.
An adaptation of the cult novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One takes place in the near future, where some sort of cataclysm has put an evil corporation in near totalitarian control and leaves the commoners in a squalor they escape via a virtual reality game called “The Oasis”, created by enigmatic game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance).
Theoretically, there must be a lot of fun stuff to do in the Oasis, but nearly everyone’s attention is directed toward a series of three challenges that Halliday programed into the game before he died. Whoever completes that challenge gains control of the Oasis.
Nearly everyone wants to win the challenge, including Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who plays under the name Parzival (after the knight who went alone to find the Holy Grail). Owning the Oasis would give Wade the financial resources to live somewhere nicer than his trailer park in Columbus, Ohio. Conversely, evil businessman Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and his megacorporation 101 wants those resources to ruin the Oasis with ads, thus gaining more money. And to get that money, he spends a ton of money on VR facilities and an army of troopers who play the game to win the prize and… make more money?
None of this makes sense if you spend too much time thinking about it, because at its heart, Ready Player One is a video game that all of us watch and none of us play. The good guys come together in avatars made of (Warner Brothers owned) pop culture properties and they fight generic looking bad guys to go get the things.
This simplicity isn’t bad in itself, but this movie is ugly, certainly Spielberg’s ugliest since Hook. Spielberg knows his way around an action scene, and there are plenty here, including a sequence in which Wade drives the Back to the Future DeLorean through a racetrack, perused by both a Jurassic Park t-rex and King Kong. The camera swoops around the vehicles and the track and the monsters, set to Alan Silvestri’s stirring recreation of a John Williams score.
It might be all very impressive stuff, if it wasn’t CG. By this point, there’s nothing exciting about seeing what programmers can do with their very expensive computers. Spielberg deserves credit for making sure that we can always tell where the principle characters are in relation to one another – a skill not everyone has, to be sure – but the images are so ugly that we’d rather not look at them.
Worse still, they’re in a video game, so nothing really matters. When Kong nearly smashes Wade’s partner Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), we don’t feel a thrill or concern. If she “dies” she just comes back to life. The movie makes half-hearted attempts to ground the stakes in real life, but the action in these sections is so over the top and silly, it’s hard to discern between the two.
The movie’s attempts at a moral are just as flimsy. There’s a lot of talk that basically boils down to “it’s good to take chances with people in the real world”, but all of this comes in a form of catechizing Oasis founder Halliday. Players repeat to one another Halliday’s favorite movies and books to look for clues, and our heroes learn how to overcome the challenges by basically avoiding the mistakes Halliday made in his real life. Mistakes that basically boil down to “he needed to take chances with people in the real world.”
Of course, most people aren’t watching the movie for its story or its philosophy. They’re watching it to see references to stuff they like, and there’s lots of those. And a lot of them are fun, including a surprising sequence based on The Shining.
But if you made grimace at that thought, then you get a sense of how the movie even screws up the references. The Shining isn’t really the sort of thing that lends itself to a video game romp. Nor does the Iron Giant, who shows up here battling monsters and, yes, even shooting people with his gun.
Even the references, then, fail. Because the movie doesn’t even honor what we love about the stuff it purports to love.
Like the action or the sentiment or the philosophy, the references in Ready Player One show up to give you a momentary visual jolt, and then to forget before you start to think or care about them.