Directed by Steven Spielberg
I really enjoyed Ready Player One, and I’m starting there because I feel like I wasn’t supposed to enjoy this movie. It’s cheesy and somewhat predictable, but it’s also full of that wonder Spielberg seems to have trademarked early in his career. It’s that type of wide-eyed, childlike sense of awe that he not only offers the audience but which his children heroes often feel themselves. You see it in E.T. and Jurassic Park as well as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Ready Player One was full of that wide-eyed quality, inhabiting a virtual world that felt just as appealing as it should be. It’s the type of world you want to run around in and explore, and even if we know the Oasis is all virtual, the fun aspect of this world transcended the more grim, Black Mirror-ish aspects.
The story takes place in 2045 among the “stacks,” a slum-like neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. This is where our hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives with his aunt and uncle, and it sets up the bleaker details of the world which so many people are eager to escape.
They find their salvation in the Oasis. In a bit of a clunky expository narration, Wade tells us that people come to the Oasis to do whatever they want (you can climb Mount Everest with Batman, for example), but they stay because you can be whatever you want. Wade’s avatar is a tatted up version of himself, but other people play not only as different genders but as different species entirely. If you possess a sharper eye than I do, many of these avatars will resemble characters from existing movies and video games. The movie is loaded with such easter eggs I’m sure I missed, which is fitting because the story concerns the search for three easter eggs within the Oasis, placed there by the creator, Halliday (Spielberg favorite Mark Rylance).
Wade tells us all this information directly, and it’s easy to forgive the thick blast of narration because the quicker we’re caught up, the better. The search for these easter eggs has been ongoing for years, but no one has found any of the three ‘keys’ which will grant the eventual winner complete control of the Oasis, not unlike Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
This quest for the hidden clues within the Oasis includes a search inside Halliday’s own mind, making the Willy Wonka-esque character something like Charles Foster Kane and the eventual easter eggs his “rosebud.” In fact, the movie is quite clear about this, referencing the famous Macguffin several times throughout the journey.
Ready Player One is loaded with these kinds of references. One of the best sequences of the film, a somewhat terrifying one considering the PG-13 rating, takes place inside the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. An important third act avatar is the titular character from Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant, and we even briefly interact with the t-rex from Jurassic Park.
There might be a broader point here about the nature of sampling from other works and making composite realities of existing property, in a sense remixing the real world into something more spectacular, but the movie mostly just enjoys itself. The Oasis looks like a hell of a lot of fun, but you can easily picture this as the world of a Black Mirror episode if handled a little differently.
Again, I adored this movie, more than I expected to considering I knew nothing about it going in, but the sense of awe obstructs any kind of look at the disturbing foundation beneath this world. Wade lives in a trailer stacked precariously upon other trailers. Later in this movie his aunt and uncle will be assassinated as their particular stack is blown up by a not so secret corporation doing secret work on the side to protect an investment.
There is some dark sh*t in this world, but we don’t really dive into it. This should feel like the environment we see in Children of Men, and it certainly looks that way at first, but the characters here aren’t imbued with the kind of deep despair like in that movie. We’re told that people are desperate to escape their real world, to be entirely different people, but we never feel that desire. Sure, I found the Oasis to be appealing but only for its own spectacle and not for what it stands in contrast to.
One example of all of this is the relationship between Wade and Samantha (Olivia Cooke). They meet as avatars in the Oasis, and pretty quickly Wade falls in love with her. Well I should say he falls in love with Art3mis, Samantha’s avatar. She’s somewhat famous, so he knows about her from the start, and soon they develop a virtual romance. When he falls in too deep and reveals to her his first name, she rebuffs him, saying that you just don’t do that and that he’s falling in love with a projection of who she wants to be. In other words he’s falling in love with a facebook profile.
So this is good, there is some real commentary here. Samantha is right. She says something to Wade like, ‘you wouldn’t like the real me,’ and Wade’s friend, H, reminds him that “she” could really be some middle-aged man who is using him. The point is that the Oasis is far from real, and he shouldn’t be seduced by it.
But eventually he meets Samantha. She could be anywhere in the world, but it just so happens she lives in the same city as he does, and guess what, she’s attractive. How is it that in a virtual world where nearly everyone plays as an avatar very different from their own real appearance, these two lovebirds play as avatars that pretty closely resemble themselves?
To be fair, I enjoyed this romantic subplot but only for those subjective reasons that make some people fall in love with country music while others loathe it. From a storytelling perspective this subplot feels unnecessary but certainly expected for a movie such as this.
The main thing I had trouble with was Samantha’s shame over a birth mark covering her right eye. She hides it when she meets Wade, and this visible insecurity works in contrast to her absolute confidence in the Oasis, and I get that this is the point. Still, she’s a pretty kickass character who at one point asks Wade if he’s ready to join the “rebellion.” So she’s this badass rebel, but she still has to be ashamed of a birth mark like she is the Elephant Man, and it felt a little backwards that her character perhaps sought Wade’s validation of her appearance.
Getting past that the movie is great. She’s great, he’s great, all the side characters are great. It’s a fun movie that acknowledges a certain darkness in this dark world but doesn’t bother to dive into it. Maybe Spielberg thought that would be a bummer for a movie as concerned with spectacle as this one, like it might be a betrayal to the audience to dive into wish fulfillment and then to pull the rug out from under us and show the depravity of where our world might be headed.
If you enjoyed this movie you might enjoy the films this one most reminded me of, an animated 2013 film called The Congress, 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, Citizen Kane and the HBO show Westworld. The Congress is a more spiritually draining, thoughtful look at what becomes of us when we increasingly rely on cultivated avatars to represent our being while Wreck-It Ralph and Westworld are more fantastical, entertaining depictions of this kind of virtual, theme park world.
Up Next: The Plumber (1979), The Shooting (1966), Ida (2013)