Oh, what a terrible dystopia. The year is 2045. Society is collapsing. Everybody is poor and desperate. Rule is seemingly by corporations, which distract the citizenry from their misery with digital circuses and drone-delivered pizza. The last hope for humanity: the benevolence of billionaires.
No, wait: that’s today. Bill Gates is trying to fix malaria, Mark Zuckerberg is trying to fix public education, and George Soros is trying to fix the refugee crisis. At least those are their whims at the moment. (Yes, the pizza thing is happening, too.) Isn’t that wonderful? Who needs robust taxation of the rich and democratic socialist governments to take care of their citizens when we all we have to do is hope — pretty please? — that those we all made insanely wealthy will give back in some way that might benefit the planet and its people? Maybe even counteract the damage fostered by all the other insanely wealthy people. (Hell, Zuckerberg is showing us that sometimes, one insanely wealthy man can be on both sides of that equation.)
And this is what we’re meant to root for in Ready Player One. In the year 2045, a virtual-reality kind of Internet called the OASIS, in which many people spend the vast majority of their lives, is up for grabs. Its creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) — who looks and acts like an ancient Garth Algar* — has died and left behind a secret easter egg hidden somewhere in the OASIS, which is its own enormous universe. Solve the riddles and challenges leading to it, and the winner will get not only Halliday’s fortune — half a trillion dollars — but total control of the OASIS. Which is, as noted by the greedy corporate villain who means to win, “the world’s most important economic resource.” This asshole, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) of megacorp IOI, means to plaster ads all over the OASIS. That’s how evil he is. (Pay no attention to the product placement in this movie.)
Never mind the horror of Halliday’s contest, which has absolutely no brakes on it to prevent the likes of Sorrento from winning. Never mind this unconscionable behavior on the part of an insanely wealthy man, deciding that the future of humanity — the movie makes it plain that this is the case — should rest upon the result of a game. Surely everything will be made right if only young Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) can win? Surely he’d do right by the OASIS and all its users and certainly wouldn’t be corrupted by all that money, right?
The laziest sort of writing, fueled by the unthinkingest sort of white-male privilege, is what posits Wade, known as Parzival in the OASIS, as Our Hero. He’s an empty shell of a person about whom we know nothing except that he’s a sad orphan, a trait he shares with Bruce Wayne*, Frodo Baggins*, James Bond*, and Harry Potter*, so I guess he must be worthy? We have no idea what he thinks about or what he likes beyond 1) an obsession with 1980s pop culture, because that’s what Halliday was into and that’s what will provide clues in the easter egg hunt; 1a) an obsession with Halliday, because ditto; and 2) a deep and abiding love for Samantha, OASIS handle Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), because she’s digital-hot (he knows her, as the film opens, only as her OASIS avatar) and also she shares his obsessions.
I mean, Ready Player One isn’t even willing to concede that perhaps Samantha might be worthy of winning. Worthy of supporting Wade in his quest, of course, because that’s what “the girl” — as she is referred to as by the villain multiple times — is for. (This is not the sort of 80s nostalgia we need.) Ready Player One the movie doubles down on the awfulness of the Art3mis/Samantha character in the book, in which Wade stalks her and creeps on her despite her protestations to leave her alone until she suddenly decides she loves him, too. Here, a (possible?) attempt to make her a more well-rounded character by implying that she is leading some sort of “rebellion” (against IOI?) — General Organa*, call your office — is immediately trashed when she is pretty instantly won over by the feckless Wade’s wildly inappropriate declaration of love for her, and also by her bizarre insistence that she suddenly “believes in” him. We have literally no idea what she is talking about. Not about the “rebellion,” nor about believing in Wade. But for some reason, she is all in for Wade, to a revoltingly self-sacrificing degree.
So very much has been altered in the transfer from book to screen. All the challenges and puzzles are completely different; what were small, personal tests — one person playing a retro videogame, for instance — are now overblown CGI action spectacles. (I actually wonder whether anyone who liked the book will like this movie.) The timeline is ridiculously compressed: what took years in the book now occurs over less than a couple of days, which makes it even less plausible when “gunters,” or easter-egg hunters, who had been Wade’s rivals instantly become his allies helping him win. (I’ll leave you to guess why the gunter team of Sho [Philip Zhao] and Daito [Win Morisaki] are not worthy of winning, only of helping Wade. Even Wade’s best-friend-in-the-OASIS, Aech, pronounced “H,” cannot be considered a potential winner, in the eyes of the story, when “he” turns out to be Helen [Lena Waithe], who is not only a woman but black.)
The script, by Zak Penn and RP1 novelist Ernest Cline, is a very truncated version of the book, but it still finds time for enormous plot holes — the security at IOI is impossibly lax; the realism of the OASIS graphics varies depending on the needs of the plot — and so many deus ex machina gadgets that characters would have to be godlike to anticipate a need for. Director Steven Spielberg crams way too much into every OASIS setting, so many random pop-culture references and allusions that you can’t digest them. There’s no irony in it, no real sense of humor, barely even any context beyond engaging in a masturbatory nostalgia. (Which is what a certain cadre of fans will be doing when they slobber over the eventual blu-ray release to screengrab and catalogue them all.) In the real-world settings, Spielberg cribs from himself: I got flashbacks to Minority Report, and they don’t come with even any of the same weary self-awareness that visual references to Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds do; they feel accidental, like it was inevitable that he’d repeat himself here, since his work is stuff that is fueling the nostalgia. Almost two and a half hours of this nightmare of nothingness, of empty, soulless wankery, feels a helluva lot longer.
But we see now what Cline feels is the heart and soul of his book. What survives the transition to the big screen is the total, ultimate male dork fantasy: That a head full of useless trivia about movies and comics and videogames not only makes you special but will save the world. That wildly inappropriate declarations of love will always be reciprocated. That you should never, ever hesitate to kiss the girl (don’t worry: she’ll love it). That, basically, you are just super duper awesome, dude.
If the rest of us would simply put our trust in geeky, awkward white boys, we just won’t go wrong, will we?
*pop-culture reference (+20 points)
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