Movie Review: Ready Player One (2018)
“Ready Player One” feels like the death of entertainment to me. The old master, Steven Spielberg, creates escapist entertainment about a shitty, dystopian world (2045) in which the escapist entertainment is a virtual reality video game with the sweep of the internet called “The Oasis.” It was created by a near-autistic genius named James Halliday (Mark Rylance), in conjunction, somehow, with a dude named Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), whom he eventually pushes out in a sort of Bill Gates/Paul Allen-style putsch. Except Halliday never seems ruthless the way Gates was/is. He’s just a fucked-up gentle soul. Who passes his disease, or the Band-Aid for his disease, onto the rest of us. Thanks, nerdlinger.
Wait, it gets worse. Because the iconography of this game is based on Halliday’s youth. Which just happened to take place in the 1980s—the worst decade ever for pop culture. So we get the Zemeckis cube (after Robert), the alien from “Aliens,” the Iron Giant, etc. Also Batman, Catwoman and King Kong, and on the soundtrack, Van Halen and Twister Sister, all glommed together into one noxious stew.
Wait, it gets worse. Because Halliday died in 2040 but left behind a video message in which he said there were three “keys” in The Oasis; and the first to gather all three keys gains control over the whole thing—the whole Oasis. Which is like gaining control of the whole Internet. Which means, yes, every fucking asshole in the world is going for it. Or at least one: a corporation named IOI, run by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who used to run errands for Halliday. And ... no one else? Really? No other assholes or asshole corporations? Are there other asshole corporations in 2045? Who knows? Our POV is fairly constricted here. Almost claustrophobic.
Wait, it gets worse. Because you know who else is gunning for the grand prize? Gamers. With like tats and shit. A group of them have banded together to ... Nah, kidding. It’s all loose and jangly. The corporation is greedy and pure evil, using indentured servitude to further its machinations, while the kids are pure, just doing their thing, yo, in between tries at that first key.
The world, in other words, is divided between hipster gamers and a big asshole corporation, while ’80s iconography swoops in and out. Doesn’t get closer to hell than that.
And I haven’t even gotten to Superman’s spitcurl.
In The Oasis, nobody knows you’re exactly who you are
Our focus is a kid named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan of “Mud”), whose father named him alliteratively in the manner of superhero alter-egos—like Peter Parker. The fates rewarded Dad by killing him off before the opening act—like Richard Parker. Wade lives with his white-trash aunt, who ain’t no May, in “The Stacks,” which is like make-shift trailer homes piled one on top of the other, in the most populous city in the world, Columbus, Ohio. He has nothing to do and nowhere to go. “Nowhere,” he says, “except ... The Oasis.”
I’m curious: Did Spielberg and screenwriters Zak Penn (“Last Action Hero,” “The Avengers”) and Ernest Cline (the 2009 doc “Fanboys”) consider putting us in the Oasis first? Before meeting Wade and hearing about Columbus? Could’ve been interesting. Or not. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, and in The Oasis it’s the same—anybody could be anybody. The sad part is anybody turns out to be exactly who you expect.
Wade, a short white kid with dark hair, chooses to be a short white avatar with blonde hair named Parzival, who looks anime, struts like Travolta, and hangs with Aitch, a big black first-person shooter/supermechanic (Lena Waithe). Parzival also has a crush on a cute, kick-ass girl named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). She has friends named Sho (a ninja) and Daito (samurai), Chinese and Japanese, respectively (Philip Zhao and Win Morisaki, respectively). They wind up being early leaders in the battle for the key. They’re called “the High Five.”
But who are they really?
- white male avatar = white male
- white female avatar = white female
- black male avatar = black lesbian
- Chinese dude avatar = Chinese dude (albeit 11 years old)
- Japanese dude avatar = Japanese dude
No cultural appropriation here. Not much imagination, either. I like that Aitch warns Parzival/Wade about falling for Art3mis, since she could be anybody, not at all like her cute white-girl avatar, and she turns out to be, you know, Olivia Cooke, as cute a white teenage crush as any lovestruck white teenage boy could ask for. It’s the jackpot. But ... oh no ... she has a birthmark around her eye. She feels it disfigures her. She hides it with her hair like Veronica Lake.
Right. It’s still the jackpot. The odds against him finding someone like Olivia Cooke on the other end of her avatar are greater than the odds of actually winning The Oasis.
Watching, I kept thinking, “We’re not far removed from ‘The Mod Squad,’ are we?” That hipster 1968 show gave us a white male lead, a white female sidekick, and a black male sidekick. That’s here. We’ve just added a Chinese and Japanese dude for effect. Or for international box office.
Parzival is, of course, the first to the first key, but Art3mis manages to be first to the second key. Made me hope for a second that maybe Wade/Parzival wasn’t the answer to everything. Nah. He still is. It’s still just that: one white male to unite them all.
Once they team up, it’s mainly the five against Sorrento, whose villainous avatar sports Superman’s spitcurl (I would sue, but I have no standing), and who, in real life, knows nothing of tech or pop culture—just big business. Apparently those are our options now: big business vs. pop culture. As if pop culture isn’t big business. As for real culture? Literature and art music and art? Not a whisper. Mr. Kurtz, they dead.
I like that Parzival attains the first key via research. Get to the libraries, kids. I was pleasantly surprised when I heard Bruce Springsteen’s “Stand On It” blasting midway through the film. I’d forgotten all about that great B-side. I truly enjoyed the fact that the battle for the second key takes place within a virtual version of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” That was fun.
But the rest? It felt like the flotsam of the last 40 years. It felt like they regurgitated '80s crap, put it on a roller coaster, and called it a movie.