Ready Player One review
Nerd culture is a garbage fire. This is a movie that is about a future in which we have all jumped off the high-dive into the deep-end of that fire. And here’s the thing about garbage fires: it is nice and warm, but that should only comfort you if you don’t mind burning alive.
I’m very sure I know how metaphors work. I’m a professional wordman.
Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One is all about a world in which Earth has succumbed to a lack of natural resources and now everyone lives in infinite trailer parks in places like Oklahoma City. Because there’s nothing for us in the real world, the virtual world of The Oasis has become where most people spend their days. But I’ll stop talking about the book, for fear you’ll feel a nostalgia from a book from just a few years ago. Ready Player One is overwhelmingly about the power of nostalgia and how it is a borderline magic spell. It is a life blood. It is more important than anything in the world, and in effect, more important than Ready Player One itself.
Sorry. Sorry. Getting ahead of myself. Let’s cover the bases.
(Want to listen to an audio version of this review? Check out the video below!)
Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in an abusive household in The Stacks, where trailer trash people live in trailer trash architecture. I don’t mean that as classism; everyone around Wade seems so awful that they are the primary emotional push to escape this place, because they’re more visible and present than any of the international economic shortages we’re told exist.
Basically, two scientists built The Oasis. One (played by a completely under-utilized Simon Pegg) kinda backstabs his partner Halliday (Mark Rylance). Halliday becomes the most important character in this story, because on his passing he announces that he left three hidden keys in the Oasis. Each of the three keys is hidden behind a challenge meant to test the player, to find someone worthy of unlocking the Easter Egg that Halliday placed somewhere in the virtual world. What that Easter Egg includes is an unfathomable amount of money and control over the Oasis. When the movie finally kicks off, it has been five years since Halliday’s death, and no one has found so much as a hint of the first Key Challenge. Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) runs a company full of full time gamers whose only job is to study Halliday’s life and to repetitively re-attempt every game in the Oasis in hopes of unlocking one of the keys.
This is the first movie I’ve seen in a decade that my first thought is “I would rather be playing it.”
I spend a lot of my writing online complaining about how badly people are at making “video game movies,” whatever that means -- be it adaptation or an attempt to capture the feel of games in a cinematic way. The new Tomb Raider film is perhaps my all-time favorite. Ready Player One sets up a world and then dives into the best game not based on a specific property I’ve ever seen. (I can already feel your judgement; yes, I’m getting to it.) This is the first movie I’ve seen in a decade that my first thought is “I would rather be playing it.” The evil empire of bots is set up, and Wade has this clan of people he knows and loves but has never met in real life, and those relationships feel more real to me than most relationships I see in cinema at this point, because they reflect many of my own relationships. Yeah, maybe one of my best friends in the world is a Twitter person with an anime avatar that I’ve never met in real life. It’s so painfully honest and the shorthand of these connections is almost annoying in how cinema hasn’t pulled this off until 2018.
Wade winds up cracking the code of the first challenge, and then solves it, getting the first key. Wade then tells all of his friends how to do it. So this large group of characters have now acquired the first key. As Wade looks for the second key, the world begins to conspire against him. Every move he makes to strengthen relationships with those around him is paid back doubly by the evil dudes working to destroy a once anonymous player, both in-game and in the real world. Wade’s abusive family dies in an accident and he goes on the run with an underground team of rebels. This call to action brings together his virtual clan, who is revealed to all be diverse characters of all ages, shapes, and nationalities. The whitest boy in the world has the most diverse clan imaginable, and doesn’t bat an eye at it. It’s a genuinely great moment, if you’re also the whitest boy imaginable.
I have never seen Avatar. I have no plans to ever see Avatar. But what blew my mind while seeing Ready Player One was how quickly I realized I was watching a version of Avatar. I was prepped for a film that was mostly set in the real world which had some gamey side-stories. This is almost entire set in-game and features the literal avatars of the main characters. It’s an incredible turn-off until it isn’t. Mid-first act, there’s a groove it hits, and it never loses you after that.
That’s not to say that there aren’t Earth Shatteringly Distracting Missteps. My god, my god, My God does this movie make mistakes.
So, let’s get to the thing. If you know anything about Ready Player One or the author of the book, you know that it has a nearly toxic level of addiction to nostalgia. And lemme admit right out of the gate: I fell for some of it. There were a few times I just pointed at a character somewhere in the background and shouted “OH WOW” and I know I’m a dork for doing so. I know this is what the entire film was built from. I actively hate myself for having done this, but also, c’mon…. This is just how we’re built. There’s a few things in the film, amidst the literal armies of video game and film references, that will catch you up too. If you’re honest with yourself, it is just a brain chemistry thing, and that’s okay. It’s not wrong to see some low-brow thing you love on the big screen and take joy in it. I promise you that it is not.
The problem is everything else. The problem is selling the concept of nostalgia as religion and having nothing else to bring to the table. There’s a shot of two female Overwatch characters embracing in a nightclub, in a way that Tumblr would ship, that I’m positive Spielberg did not understand -- there’s a lot of this that I think the artists were just told “Go make a movie with every reference and we’ll use Spielberg money to clear the rights later.” There’s also nostalgia reference stuff that is so heretical that it makes me want to shoot lasers from my eyes, much like how the Iron Giant is a gigantic terrifying weapon in this film, despite the THESIS OF THAT ENTIRE GODDAMNED MOVIE.
Sorry. I’m sorry. Calming down.
So, this movie is drenched in 1980s nostalgia. It’s all Rubik's Cubes and Duran Duran. And all the references to pop culture end now. I didn’t finish the book, so I’ve spent the last few months mulling over why the world of 2045 is stuck on the equivalent of 2018 teens being all Hip 2 Steamboat Willie. Why? The theory I’ve come up with is that our current culture of nostalgia is so distorted and weird, we might actually be stuck in it for the next 20 years or so. I honestly don’t see the guys who complained about Lady Ghostbusters being any less “my childhood is ruined” 20 years from now, no matter how many reboots happen between now and then. I don’t think people that enjoy Transformers right now will like it any more or less in 20 years, but I think all of popular culture will still hold the same opinion, because it’s goddamned Transformers. It doesn’t change. And maybe if we plateaued then, I guess, this could just be where we got stuck. I doubt Ernest Cline thought that far ahead, but if this is what it represents, I could get on board.
The world revolves around hero-worshipping Halliday... because understanding his loves are their only route out of their terrible shit lives.
Way off, Brock. Way off.
The thesis of Ready Player One is that Halliday, the guy who did the work building this place and then hiding all these secrets, made himself God of the Second Life where everyone now lives. So, in a forever effort to figure out where this guy hid his secrets, there are entire museums set up to allow people to study and relive his entire life. An entire division of the evil company just studies his life, but so do individuals like our hero, Wade. The world revolves around hero-worshipping Halliday, something that was imposed on this world by Halliday himself. Everyone here loves what he loved because, to be painfully honest, understanding his loves are their only route out of their terrible shit lives.
It is one of the cruelest things I have ever seen committed to film. It is one of the things that I cannot believe the filmmakers did not understand. Halliday is the best supervillain I have ever seen in a movie. He is also the only supervillain I have ever seen in a movie that is sold as the good guy, leaving aside some Unbreakable type of twist.
There’s this other game-movie called Scott Pilgrim in which a guy who loves pop culture too much has to come to realize that he’s awful to the people around him, and that pop culture is not an excuse for that. I’ve long expected that my review of Ready Player One would revolve around how no one here had a comparable healthy awakening. I don’t get to do that now, because the actual story is so much darker. Halliday is sold as this god but also a down-to-earth guy but also the person whose struggles must be understood to solve this puzzle. Literally, one of the moments of his life that the players must come to understand is how he was afraid of kissing a girl. I’m not making this up: it is that kind of nightmarish nerd culture. I’d call it pandering if I didn’t consider it genuinely dangerous.
When you get to the bottom of it, Ready Player One is not about nostalgia on any level. It is about an entire world forced to deal with the most toxic high school ‘nice guy’ you can imagine. Halliday’s preferences become the key to understanding where he may have hidden his secrets, and everyone wants to uncover those secrets because they have nothing in their own lives worth pursuing. Everyone in the Oasis knows and listens to only the songs that would have been on his sophomore year mixtape he made for a girl he couldn’t talk to. At one point, characters quiz each other (I PROMISE I’M NOT MAKING THIS UP) about what Halliday’s preferences were for a multiplayer Goldeneye 007 game.
It’s “Snipers Only” and I don’t remember the level but I do remember that Halliday preferred to play as Oddjob and…. Look, I’m sorry to do this. The Jesus Christ of the next frontier of human existence, the God of video games, picked the biggest cop-out cheat character in Goldeneye 007 and we are supposed to worship at that shrine? Kill me. Actually kill me.
Nostalgia was what I came in prepared to hate, but Ready Player One is actually about something way more horrifying, and I think Spielberg knows this. It’s not obvious from the film itself, but the moment you step outside the cinema, it is the very first thought on your mind. For everyone. It was a world forced into subservience on some random white dude’s interests, and I without reservation believe that we will celebrate Ready Player One as a total skewering of that kind of person. Not now, but a few years from now. I’m not extrapolating; it is all there. And less involved viewers will get to see a big fun action film that does big action film things, but the rest of us, I fully believe, can find the Easter Egg of horrible meaning at the center of this film.
I’m supposed to end this by settling on a “go watch this” or a “pass” and I’ve been dreading this for days. I’m completely stuck here. I know what I should say. I know what I shouldn’t say. I know what I want my Hot Take to be but I also know what my Honest Take is here. I also know that my wife, who went into the film prepared to burn it to the ground worse than I was, came out enjoying it maybe more than me. But I also know that when Indiana Jones: Crystal Skull came out, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive at first, because we’ve all got a weird Spielberg soft spot for a few weeks post-release. In a month, who knows where I’ll sit?
An aside: At one point, the characters play Adventure for the Atari 2600. "This is the first game with an Easter egg," I whispered to my wife, just as a character on the screen said, "THIS IS THE FIRST GAME WITH AN EASTER EGG."
My wife said, "Your editor is going to hate that."
Like I said, everyone will have that moment where they get swept up in some kind of Emotion about this film. I know I did. There is one scene in the third act where I saw something represented on screen about games and about art and about myself and about intention that I found totally overwhelming at the time. But with even the smallest amount of distance, I know that this moment does not represent me. Nor does it represent anyone else. Nor does it even touch the borders of truth. It represents a chillingly cynical attempt to co-opt everything that is good about what I love.
You know how Steven Spielberg must have just come knocking for every IP involved, and shoved a check under the door in exchange for everything that meant something to your childhood? That’s what this film is. Of course this could have built to a meaningful endpoint. Of course it could have changed things. Instead, despite all the good that I see here, this will absolutely fall against the sides of the wastebin of cinema.
If you have any desire to see it, then see it now in a theater, because this is your best version of it. Beyond that, I think we’re bound for a re-appropriation of the film by the time it hits home media, where we all recognize that it is the story of a how a single white dude’s toxicity could poison the Earth for decades to come. This is the FernGully of warning children of the dangers of basing their entire lives on someone else’s life. And if it was created to fulfill that purpose, this would be one of the best films of all time. Instead, perhaps consider this on par with the number of times that you hear about the film Monster House in 2018. There can be just enough flash to make folks reconsider everything, but without any follow through, all you’ve got is some smoke.
You don’t have to do this. If you read this review, there’s nothing more you have to learn. Do you feel bad about your choices but worse about Van Halen? Congrats on graduating Ready Player One school. You could have done so much worse.