I wouldn’t expect to dislike a big summer movie for its failure to properly consider the democratization of shared online spaces, but welcome to 2018.
When Ready Player One, based on an Ernest Cline novel which apparently everyone but me heard of back in 2011, was announced, the conversation surrounding it seemed to revolve in how it would deal with the toxic culture surrounding gamer fandom after GamerGate. On the surface, Ready Player One has painted an inclusive picture of the community, with enough rah-rah community spirit to feel less like a celebration of geeky lonerism. But its a bit of a smoke screen, as it still relies on its audience getting the references with exactly as much subtlety as an episode of Family Guy. Yes, I get the reference of the Holy Hand Grenade, but its not used in any inventive fashion, and its weirdly distancing for those who, understandably, don’t get the often forty-year old references.*
If the Holy Hand Grenade seems like an easy one, how about a piece of tech which is a complete deus ex machina unless you know the name of the director of Back to the Future? For the most part, Ready Player One doesn’t do anything artful with the references, scattering them as background flavour without really engaging with the material. An extended second-act The Shining riff is the sole exception, which filters the CGI action through a film filter and has actual fun with the setting, as an orc-creature avatar unfamiliar with the source material innocuously calls for the elevator. The ending may give us the Mecha-Godzilla vs. The Iron Giant/Gundam tag-team fight we never asked for, but The Lego Movie and Lego Batman did the whole licensed-materials toybox with a lot more creativity earlier.
But if it barely dodges gatekeeperism on its pop-cultural reverence, it falls face-first into a pile of manure on its reverence for silicon valley tech bros. The movie neatly slots cartoonish corporate green into the villainous role for reasons of ease. Of course no one wants an internet with financial interests at the helm, leaving extra room for ad space and ticking away at your bank account through microtransactions. But the movie posits that the only way to fight bad corporate overlords is to impose benevolent nerdy overlords. Not only is this kinda terrifying, particularly within a month of the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica scandal, but its internally inconsistent. The virtual reality world of The Oasis is portrayed as a wonderful escape, but also one whose penalty for in-world death can be a driver of real-life suicide, and one that has allowed the very corporate baddies that do occupy villainous roles to flourish. Mark Rylance gives a tender performance as the creator of The Oasis, but while his imperfection are admitted, he’s never held to the fire as a responsible party. Society is quickly waking up to the fact that just because you claim to be pro-freedom and pro-democracy doesn’t mean you get a free pass when insidious elements take easy advantage of the structures you provide while you let them line your pockets, and in failing to grapple with this at all, Ready Player One ensures that, in forty years, no one will be making nostalgic references to it.
Ready Player One (2018)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendehlsohn, and Mark Rylance
Rotten Tomatoes (75%)
* That being said, if Ready Player One gets one person to watch The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, it will have been worth it.