Ready Player One's idealized online world fights a losing battle with our real life one

Ready Player One was perhaps Steven Spielberg’s greatest challenge.

Pitting his optimism and humanity against the increasingly toxic world of fandom and nerd culture, Spielberg is thrust face to face with a world he helped create. But when confronted with this obsessive, often manic place and culture, he doesn’t back down or lash out; he does what he does best. He finds the humanity and hope within that world and brings it to the surface. He does the best he can with what can only be described as one of the most virulent pieces of source material in recent memory. The unfortunate-but-real toxicity at the heart of Ernest Cline’s book, and the culture surrounding it, butts up against Spielberg’s inherent goodness and storytelling ability becoming, basically, a zero-sum game.

It is a fine film. It works. The filmmaking is assured and the set pieces often thrilling (I enjoyed watching a certain giant Japanese robot fight a certain giant Japanese kaiju, I have to admit). The opening oner reminds you one of the many reasons Spielberg separates himself from so many other directors, when as the camera floats down the Stacks (the condensed living domiciles of the Ohioans in the 2040’s) the camera actually moves like…a camera. This might seem like a small or even obvious thing, but the truth is that most directors never put that thought into how a camera moves in a digital shot. Being aware of the camera “moving” actually doesn’t take the viewer out of the experience at all. Rather, it lends weight to the proceedings. It makes it feel all the more tactile1.

Describing the plot might be done by simply listing all the films to which is owes homages. A young man, Wade Watts (Tye Sheriden), lives a lonely, poor life in Columbus, Ohio in a dystopian, corporatized America. His only release is through the Oasis, a gaming world created by genius designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance, as good as ever) where pretty much everyone in the world spends all their time, the actual world too dismal to care about. Halliday died five years before, promising that if anyone could find the Easter Egg he left inside the game, they would win half a trillion dollars and functional control over the Oasis. Here our young, introverted hero learns to work with his friends (mainly Olivia Cooke and a very entertaining Lena Waithe) to win the prize while resisting the dangerous, almost comically evil corporation IOI, lead by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). I say “almost” comically evil because the companies behavior (including murder and enslavement) is the same kind of behavior that companies perpetuate today.

You won’t find yourself sitting and thinking about plot holes or inconsistencies until later, because as ever, Spielberg is less concerned with an absolute cohesive reality than with communicating feelings that carry you through the picture. It is, in so many ways, a hopeful movie. One that could maybe only be made by someone not entirely connected to our current zeitgeist of pop culture but who instead fathered it. Characters want what is best for one another. People rally together for good intentions. Even the people working for an evil corporation are actually just people who love what they do and end up cheering on the good guys. There is humanity and goodness on display everywhere.

Which is why it feels so incredibly dissonant with where we are now.

Imagining a future where a Massive Multiplayer Online game is inhabited by people of all walks of life instead of dominated by negativity, sexism, bad-mouthing, and GamerGate is perhaps the biggest leap Spielberg makes2. Here, almost everyone is good-natured. The only “bad” player we see in the film is TJ Miller’s I-R0K (who is asleep at the wheel for his brief and unnecessary appearances). Even Wade’s Parzival (his avatar name) while having many of the traits that might set off alarm bells for your typical toxic online personality (loner with few friends and overly obsessed with pop culture) is actually pretty well socialized. It’s like an idealized version of what we could have.

Spielberg wisely doesn’t luxuriate in the references the film makes the way that the book does. Here, no one spends time listing off the things we see on screen (well, mostly). They just happen to be there while the story is being told. That, at least, is refreshing. Spielberg doesn’t use the film’s basis to stew in the nostalgia of days gone by, rather he tries to say that the things we love can serve as a basis for new adventures today, and how valuable that can be.

This is a complicated review because there’s so much to parse vis-a-vis what is happening in the film and what is happening in the culture that the film is espousing. If this movie existed in a vacuum, I think it would be treated as the mild and decent romp that it is. But the film exists in a time when every day creators and fans alike are showing the darker face of fandom and the cost of loving something past the point of rational thinking.

The danger in a film like Ready Player One is the unintentional permission it gives to people to focus on what they love and become gatekeepers and worse. The last few years have seen pop culture look itself in the mirror and be forced to reckon with all it’s ugliness. Spielberg’s optimistic vision of gaming and society was fighting a losing battle against it’s own celebrated culture before it even came out.

I think there is room for positivity in the way we view our pop culture and our love for it. There is even room for optimism about the future (I know I’m feeling better after last weekend’s March For Our Lives and seeing the power that the next generation is bringing to the table). I also think that we have a long road to deal with the problems inherent in our pop culture and fandom. Maybe Ready Player One will age well, when we’re past this point of darkness. Maybe it won’t have to be attached with dozens of caveats and considerations about what it’s representing (or ignoring) in the future.

But for right now, it does need those caveats and considerations. Right now, the conversation does need to happen. Right now, Ready Player One feels at odds with our culture, and it’s going to have to reckon with that.

  1. For another positive attribute, check out my Dig this week, where I go on about Alan Silvestri’s phenomenal score for the movie.
  2. Spoiler: Another big leap is actually having the police show up at the end of the film to clean things up, like this is one of the 80s movies RPO loves so much. I was actually surprised that the cops arrested the corporate bigshot instead of shooting all the poor people who were resisting him. Such is where we are now.