Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One might be the worst film I’ve seen all year. Not because of the performances or direction (though both fail to impress,) but because of everything it stands for. It is millenial wish fulfillment at its most insipid, treating as heroic that which should be critically investigated. It is permissive of its characters’ gaping flaws to a fault, offering nothing but empty reassurances that the things they enjoy are important, revolutionary even, for the simple reason that they enjoy them. It celebrates without examining, condemns without sympathizing, and tells its audience exactly what it wants to hear, not a word more.
The plot concerns a virtual reality video game called the Oasis, where you can be whatever you want to be. People use the Oasis to escape their everyday problems, though conveniently we never learn what those problems are. The Oasis is populated by stunted man-children, who all adore pop culture despite never once manage to formulate an original or compelling opinion about the things they profess to love so much. There is also an evil corporation named IOA trying to take over the Oasis by hunting down three keys that the game’s creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) left behind after his death. We are meant to hate IOI, as well as its CEO, Noran Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), on principle due to their greedy, parsimonious natures, which is odd considering the fact that the film itself is nothing but an empty-headed two hour commercial.
Opposing this corporation is one of the most by-the-numbers protagonists to grace multiplexes – Wade Watts. Wade checks off every box in the boring lead checklist: he’s an orphan, lonely, living with abusive or negligent relatives, and is prodigiously talented at the only skill that seems to matter in the universe of the film, which, conveniently is playing video games. To the film’s credit, it makes several attempts to develop his character, but he nevertheless comes across as an empty vessel for equally empty wish fulfillment. He is not particularly compelling outside of his blind devotion to geek culture, yet inexplicably, he is constantly told, explicitly or implicitly, that he is somehow special. This is a comforting idea for those who share Wade’s introversion and geeky obsessions, but it’s also a dangerous one, since it encourages passivity and self-indulgence over intellectual rigor and self-improvement.
Such a character would be grating enough if he didn’t also represent every vapid adolescent cliche possible. At one point, Wade unironically calls his abusive uncle a “noob” for having died in the game. Said uncle is violent, capricious, and crude, yet the worst thing the film or its protagonist can possibly say about him is that he is untalented at videogames. Elsewhere, Wade finds himself face-to-face with Sorrento for the first time. The corporate mogul offers to team up with Wade, to which he replies “a fanboy knows a hater.” This quote essentially sums up the film’s entire conception of morality. Wade is the hero because he likes things. He doesn’t intellectually probe the things he likes or ask himself if his obsessions are healthy; he simply likes them, and that seems to be enough. In the world of Ready Player One, enjoying media as cheap escapism is tantamount to a heroic act, in one of the most blatant, masturbatory forms of fan service I have ever witnessed.
Sorrento, on the other hand, hates everything but money, which the discerning viewer might recognize as the defining character trait of practically every corporate villain of the last century. Yet there is an extra layer of malignancy to his character: he’s not a real nerd (the horror!) Indeed, for a film about underdogs and outcasts, Ready Player One is concerningly obsessed with establishing its own social hierarchy, with geeks and gamers at the very top. Sorrento’s crimes are many, but the one the film considers to be the most egregious is not his belief that the universe revolves around money, but that he believes that it doesn’t revolve around geek culture. No other culture seems to matter, in a world that is tailor-made for insecure video game enthusiasts who seek to have their hobbies, as well as their mediocrity, blindly validated.
The Oasis’ creator, Halliday, is a geeky amalgam of Howard Hughes, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg; or rather, he is what those men would likely wish to be remembered as. As of the start of the film, Halliday has been dead for five years. Upon his death, instead of ensuring that his money would help enrich the world in the same way that he is supposed to have done throughout the life, he designs an elaborate challenge within the game to determine who will inherit control of the Oasis, which, as one character says, is the most valuable economic resource in the world at this point. In essence, Halliday, whom we are told was a selfless, benevolent figure, leaves the fate of the financial world up to an elaborate, skill-based game meant only to serve his own narcissistic whims. Even worse, the other characters do nothing but sanctify the man, never pausing to consider the fact that they have based their entire sense of self-worth around their knowledge of his specific cultural tastes. Wade casually mentions the fact that The Shining is Halladay’s 11th favorite horror movie as if it is a useful piece of information to have in anything but a world that is designed solely to grant the wishes of those who do nothing but accumulate useless facts. He is also one of the few people with an awareness of the only date Halliday ever went on (Halliday, a morose introvert, panders in his very construct to antisocial geeks who perpetually fail with women.) The date never went anywhere, and we’re never led to believe that Kira, the other participant, ever had feelings for him, yet the “what if” questions surrounding the date become central to the plot in a thread that is played as sweet rather than creepy. We are tellingly never told how Kira felt or if she ended up happy, and why would we be? She exists solely to fulfill the desires of the maladjusted man through whose gaze we see her.
While we’re on the subject of women, let’s take a moment to discuss the female lead. Her name is Artemis (Olivia Cooke,) and she is something of a legend in the Oasis, where, once again, one’s social status is determined solely by their ability to play video games. Artemis is remarkably skilled, but never skilled enough to overshadow or threaten Wade, as this would interfere with the male-centric fantasy that is the film’s core appeal. Wade falls in love with her almost instantly, and tells her so shortly after, indicating that this film possesses an understanding of love that is about as sophisticated as a Twilight novel. She initially rejects him, expressing understandable reservations about entering into a romantic relationship with a man who has never met or seen her, and who really only loves the idealized version of her that he has created in his loneliness. It is a refreshing moment that promises a subversion of one of Hollywood’s most troublesome tropes, but this is quickly undone when Artemis, for no discernible reason, begins to reciprocate his feelings (because heaven forbid that the shameless audience stand-in ever have to cope with genuine failure or rejection.)
Another reason why she initially rejects him is because she believes he will find her unappealing if they ever met in real life, and several other characters reinforce this notion, particularly Wade’s virtual best friend, Aech, who warns him that she could be an overweight man for all he knows. This is sound advice, and it drives home the notion that Wade is delusional and dangerously obsessed with the manufactured idea he has turned Artemis into. As a plot device, the fact that Artemis is a man or otherwise incompatible with Wade could be a sobering reminder to audiences that, while fantasy and escapism is fun, it often isn’t what the real world looks like, and acting as though it is typically leads to disappointment. But of course, she turns out to be absolutely stunning, her insecurities about her looks deriving mostly from a birthmark over her eye, one that fails to sell the idea that no one finds her attractive. Even those that do find the birthmark off-putting need not worry, as Spielberg often favors the unmarred side of her face, while the side with the birthmark is at times strategically covered up by her perfectly styled hair. Despite her laughable insecurities about her ugliness, all it takes is Wade’s awkward professions of attraction to her in order to convince her otherwise. She is, in short, everything he wants: gorgeous, insecure enough to fall for him despite his lack of outstanding qualities, and able to hold her own in a tough situation as to be worthy of envy without overshadowing him.
Many have defended this film on the grounds that one should simply enjoy the film as big, dumb, empty spectacle, the kind of film that invites viewers to, as the saying goes, “turn their brains off.” This is precisely why this film is so problematic – it encourages, even endorses, a catatonic viewer. Yes, the movie is big and loud, but why should that be inherently fun? All the empty spectacle the movie has to offer means nothing if there isn’t something interesting going on beneath it, and on this front, Ready Player One has nothing to offer. It gives the audience exactly what they want without pausing to consider whether it is responsible to give it to them. I am not simply being cynical, but rather pointing out that, while large-scale blockbuster filmmaking is a necessary part of film culture, it is never too much to ask for it to have something of passing intelligence to say, especially considering the amount of money that often goes into these projects.
As for the action itself, it isn’t nearly as impressive as one might hope. The final battle in particular involves excesses of special effects and camera movements that are more synonymous with Michael Bay than with Spielberg. It involves countless pop culture icons mindlessly fighting other for what feels like an eternity. Just prior to this, Wade gives a rallying speech that is so mawkish, cliche-ridden, emptily optimistic, unimaginative, and tragically sincere, that by the end I was writhing in my seat out of sheer discomfort. It sounds like any battle speech in a post-Braveheart world, only somehow even more melodramatic and full of meaningless platitudes. The battle itself has little impact on the characters or their journeys and is mostly nauseating to look at due to all the visual clutter. Even in the one place where the film is supposed to excel, it falls on its face.
Yet the chief flaws of the film are the narrative ones. Ready Player One is a film of contradictions. It presents geeks as noble, misunderstood outsiders, yet builds a world in which their talents and hobbies are at the center of the universe. It makes various connections to the real-world iteration of the subculture while outright ignoring the toxic, immature or otherwise negative elements of it. Its main priority seems to be avoiding anything that might shatter the illusion of nerds as anything but affable underdogs who deserve to win. In the world of this film, being a good or heroic person essentially boils down to liking the same things the writer likes.
Of course, what is a two-hour cinematic advertisement without a large number of manipulative appeals to nostalgia? Rather than deconstructing or investigating our obsession with our childhood media, it attempts to persuade us that our consumption of this media is an end unto itself, encouraging us to live in the past rather than learning from it. In doing so, Ready Player One inadvertently exposes a number of troubling trends in pop culture, namely our blind adoration of the things we enjoyed as children with barely a thought given to why or how those things shaped us.
At one point, Wade says of Halliday “he showed us that we could go somewhere without going anywhere at all” This might have well be the film’s slogan. Ready Player One is vapid and dangerously superficial, but no more than most other blockbusters. Why, then, is it so much worse? The answer is simple – most blockbusters don’t wear their shallowness on their sleeve quite like this film does. The positive reaction the film has received is equally troubling, with many fans praising it for evoking the mirth of their childhoods. Spielberg should know better than to become complicit in this kind of media gluttony. His new film, which could have been a compelling exploration of our relationship with the fiction that shapes us, instead devolves into embarrassing wish-fulfilling pablum, in a film that epitomizes everything concerning about how we are consuming media.