Ready Player One (2018) by Steven Spielberg
Why did Steven Spielberg want to make this movie?
It’s difficult to find a metaphor for a creator delving into a piece of content so indebted to their own craft. It isn’t like Ozu remaking his same story multiple times — this one seems so vain because Ready Player One is more artifact than creation. For the nearly two and half hour run time, the 80s pulp tapestry tries to recapture the magic to which it is so beholden.
Sadly, it feels much more reflective of 2018 than 1980.
Nostalgia is not a modern phenomenon. In the 17th century, the term was taken from the Greek compound nóstos, meaning “homecoming,” a Homeric word, and álgos, which means "pain" or “ache” and applied to the condition of Swiss mercenaries, whose desire to be back at home earned them a medical diagnosis rather than true catharsis.
Today, it can probably be best whittled down to objects of popular art — movies, television shows, music — that speak to a time that a person either experienced — their youth, high schools days, etc. — or of a period they wished they could take part in. The second definition applies to Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), the lead character of Ready Player One. Wade lives with his aunt in “The Stacks,” a housing project in Columbus, Ohio in the year 2045. The name “Stacks” feels more like a definition for the layers of references rather than the physical layout of the apartment buildings.
In the world of Ready Player One, knowledge — specifically of the “canon” of popular culture — is currency, and Wade is rich. About a quarter of the way through the film, he comes into contact with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), another renowned avatar that becomes the object of his affection.
It is easy to think of Wade and his relationship with Art3mis as “boy meets girl” — a trope that heralds back, past the 1980s, to the beginnings of stories themselves. But this courtship isn’t initially in the physical realm. In 2045, the whole world is logging into a cyber-space known as the Oasis — a creation of a Steve Jobs-like character named James Halliday (Mark Rylance). In this space, people can be anything they want — boy, girl, monster, hero, hunk — and the possibilities seem endless.
But when the story picks up, Halliday is dead, and he has sent out a challenge to his fans — find a mysterious Easter egg amidst his creation and the space is yours. The clues are hidden inside of his memories, and the players comb through his life as if it were levels of an arcade game. I guess in a sense they are.
There’s something disturbing about these sequences where Wade sifts through the memories of his idol. It’s too deeply connected with a modern Internet culture less inclined to absorb and experience a piece of pop culture, but hellbent on finding every clue and meaning "hidden" inside it.
So when Wade, or Parzival, as his avatar goes by, meets Art3mis, the connection isn’t based on attraction, admiration or amazement (well, maybe a little of all), but of their shared proficiency in popular culture. Throughout the film, we see gamers collecting golden coins, a mainstay of video games since the days of the first Mario Bros. adventures, but the true currency in the Oasis is knowledge — specifically that of the culture that came to define James Halliday.
This is where Ready Player One seems most toxic. It isn’t bad that these players enjoy John Hughes movies, Back to the Future or the music of Rush, but what’s so sick is that it has become a trade of reality. Parzival and Art3mis trade 80s-infused trivia in a manner that means to evoke the playful banter of say Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (or to stay in the same generation, Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club).
This trade of pop culture wisdom doesn’t necessarily relegate itself to just romantic courtship. Later in the movie, Parzival/Wade attracts the attention of Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the head of a corporation called IOI that is looking to win Halliday’s contest in order to meld the game to their liking.
In this scene between Parzival and Sorrento, the latter wears an earpiece and, much like our lead character and Art3mis, the two compete over their knowledge of popular culture, with the hero trying to trip up the villain with misplaced facts. Sorrento is able to counter the assault because his team catches them on the other end of the listening device. This coalition feels like a living and breathing Reddit page, parsing through every detail of every bit of content to find the answer.
This normalcy about referential knowledge is plain sickening as it is stripping these movies, television shows, songs and stories from their source and making them fodder for our personalized escape. An aspect of escapism lives in each of these already, but suffocating idolization of these pieces of culture is stomach-churning.
There’s something hollow about these transactions. It's as if popular culture has no agency or depth, but is just a tool in someone’s arsenal to avoid reckoning with reality.
It also feels so insync with a pattern of culture consuming that has become all too pervasive in today’s sphere dominated by "puzzle boxes" such as Game of Thrones, Inception and Westworld — the enjoyment doesn’t come from the experience of seeing the piece of content, it comes from understanding its supposed greater meeting. Religion meets popular culture and Ready Player One seems like the Bible.
Which brings us back to Halliday — a character molding himself to be more Willy Wonka than Steve Jobs. It is no wonder Spielberg allegedly wanted the late Gene Wilder to play the role (the actor declined) and a remixed version of “Pure Imagination” plays along the movie’s first trailer — he wants Halliday to embody that benevolent escapist (or harkening back to my previous paragraph — God).
In this concept, maybe this is why the director became interested in the project. He saw this source material (based on the 2005 book of the same name) as a Wonka-esque adventure into a fantasy that ends with a call for real world interaction. But I’m not sure Ready Player One is that pure, or that its figurehead is either.
The author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl, said about Wilder's performance in the Wonka role that the actor was "rather too soft and didn’t have a sufficient edge." He added that "there was something wrong with (Wonka’s) soul in the movie – it just wasn’t how he imagined the lines being spoken.”
Some would have to disagree with Dahl's assessment as while Wilder did give the character a degree of softness and warmth, he also evoked a enigmatic rage and insanity that seemed unhinged and unraveling from somewhere dark and unspoken of.
Spielberg, and screenwriters Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (also the book’s author), portray Rylance’s Halliday as a socially-inept introvert who only sought to recapture the joy of his youth — playing games and finding adventure in them.
While Wonka embodied this reclusive genius hiding behind mighty gates, this concept doesn’t necessarily translate to 2018 as well as it did in 1971 when the movie came out. The manner of industry has changed in such a way that the idealistic shadow leader is non-existent as it was in the sense of Wonka. Instead, Halliday is more akin to someone like Mark Zuckerberg, a man with infinite power and overflowing with ideals that speak to a unifying force, but ultimately lead to hollow promises.
Halliday wishes to create an escape, but is instead fracturing culture — a revelation that they never actively reckon with. In a few scenes, as the camera floats from apartment to apartment, we see men, women and children with goggles on – living their fantasies. There is that attempt to unify this vision by saying Wade’s ultimate triumph works as a connecting force for good; that video games create a sense of community – it just looks different from what a band of friends looked like 10 years ago.
But, overall, it just looks sad. Like mentioned before, this new-found community is built on analogous pop culture reverence and features people walking around in avatars that fit their desired features — nothing true. The people of Ready Player One's 2045 are creating experiences, but they are creating ones that are so distant from something human or real.
Maybe that works for others, but it, again, just seems so hollow.
Being an architect of culture like Halliday has to be something that at least resonates with Steven Spielberg — someone who not only has directed massive movie franchises, but also produces many others. It could be what attracted him here.
It’s not necessarily fair to implant the same damning observation on Spielberg as Zuckerberg and Halliday because the director has at least shown a willingness to explore more adult themes in other films like Minority Report, Munich or more recently, The Post — not sticking strictly to the pulp entertainment he is well-known for — but it is still a facet of his career that can’t be ignored.
The problem with Halliday is not his shy demeanor, hushed speech or lack of confidence in the cadence of his voice. It is that figures like him — sad, often misguided, creators — don’t have the same room for aspired wonder that he wants to exude. It’s 2018, not 1971, and while it isn’t necessarily fair, we live in a reality where figureheads of major corporations are expected to display a different sense of transparency as when Spielberg made his mark with similar characters in other blockbusters in the 1980s and 1990s.
A tech company can control our mode of communication, another can control how we get around and a reality star can become President. Maybe Ready Player One’s nostalgia isn’t for the actual culture of the 1980s but the culture of the 1980s — one that lacks the demand for tangible good from our industry leaders.
And maybe that makes Spielberg perfect for this source material then. He sees a little bit of Halliday in himself.
But in that case, Ready Player One should take its own advice. Don’t be the creator still holding onto the past, but step aside for the next generation of imagination.