starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance
screenplay by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, based on the novel by Cline
directed by Steven Spielberg
by Walter Chaw Ready Player One is the first Spielberg film I can remember that feels contemptuous. It is at its heart self-abnegation--an indictment of playing to fandom from a filmmaker who hasn't met a pander he couldn't indulge, whether it be giving Philip K. Dick a happy ending or over-explaining the horrors of war/slavery/the Holocaust in condescending monologues. Taken as an auteur piece, the picture is sort of stunning: Hollywood's Peter Pan savant pissing on Neverland and the Lost Boys. If it's a remake in intent of Mel Stuart's perverse Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (as its trailers suggest), it at least captures the rage and self-violence at the heart of that film. Adapted from Ernest Cline's terrible novel, Ready Player One dials down the book's self-satisfied checklisting but, disastrously, tacks on a "gather ye rosebuds" message about how reality--without all the intellectual property worship and dork one-upmanship--is ultimately preferable to virtual reality. It is literally the movie version of the William Shatner sketch on SNL from 1986 where he tells Star Trek conventioneers to "get a life" and, you know, maybe kiss a girl and, most viciously, how these idiots gathered before him have turned an "enjoyable little job I did as a lark for a few years into a colossal waste of time." Consider that the solutions to the "quests" in the movie are to go backwards, to ask someone to dance, to fuck around for a while instead of trying to hit a target. It's nostalgia defined traditionally rather than through the lens of action figures, cartoons, and videogames. It's almost Proustian.
Ready Player One is a movie about regretting having wasted your life, and it gets explicit about the many ways in which you have. I'll cop to one moment in the picture that filled me with intense longing: the first view of the central hall of a virtual Overlook Hotel. I hadn't felt so much like I wanted to inhabit a landscape since Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, alive with its Hemingways and Fitzgeralds and Josephine Bakers, its Steins and Picassos and Dalis. Post-modernism is complicated, however, because I'm also bringing to this scene the knowledge that Kubrick criticized Spielberg's Schindler's List ("Think [Schindler's List] was about the Holocaust?...That was about success, wasn't it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler's List is about 600 who don't") in a controversial memoir written by Eyes Wide Shut screenwriter Frederic Raphael. A memoir that Spielberg repudiated, saying he didn't recognize "the voice of Stanley" in it--a peculiar phrasing that suggests to me the RCA dog painting of "His Master's Voice." What must Spielberg have brought to this, arguably his second posthumous "collaboration" with Kubrick after assuming control of A.I., a project on which Kubrick had continually sought Spielberg's advice. It's a lot to unpack. Spielberg himself was an outsider member of the Film Brat generation during a movement in the American '70s I still believe to be the best, most fulsome period in the history of the medium. Theirs was the first generation to have gone to film school and so, in a general way, their pictures from 1968 to around 1981 were post-modern, too. To listen to Spielberg discuss the framing and timing of any five-minute sequence from Billy Wilder's The Spirit of St. Louis is to hear a fetishist at the altar of his obsession. He's not that different from the insular cultists that Ready Player One was created by and for: socially weird, sexually naive at the start of it, now the most powerful masters of the pop-cultural universe. The only difference, really, is the drug of choice.
Ready Player One additionally brings to mind my distaste for Forrest Gump, the Robert Zemeckis film that is not Back to the Future (the movie that Ready Player One fetishizes the most, up to and including a soundtrack cue and a deus ex machina that makes no sense in or out of context). Forrest Gump also inserts a simpleton (or simpletons) into various historical tableaux without any demonstrable evidence of knowledge of or empathy for said tableaux. Think Zelig without wit. It is, in other words, the central metaphor of Ready Player One that Spielberg has inserted himself here wrestling with the ghost of Kubrick, someone he really admired and presumably did the work he wanted to do but didn't; the mentor who did not, at the end of his life, appear to reciprocate completely Spielberg's admiration. This is Spielberg's cross to bear, and he bears it in a way that is initially honourable, eventually reductive, and ultimately disgusted. It starts with a glorious dip into The Shining's deep atmospherics, becomes a slasher/zombie pastiche, and ends with the ballroom section of Disney's "Haunted Mansion" ride. It's how a simpleton reads The Shining. I suspect Spielberg knows better.
If there's fascination with Ready Player One, it's with the answerable-only-by-Spielberg question of whether the film is a statement on his own body of work. On the press tour for it he was hasty to distinguish this as a "movie" rather than a "film." I wonder if it's too far a stretch to say that Spielberg would also like to separate his own body of work into things that are worthwhile in his mind artistically for inclusion in a consideration of his legacy, and those he would contend do not make the "film" grade. I wonder on which side Jaws would fall--or Duel, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or even Temple of Doom (a picture he has, in the past, practically disowned), the pre-eminent modern example of a film maudit. After a lifetime of Oscar-hunting, Spielberg in his third act seems perilously close to making the "it's for fans, not for critics" last, desperate defense for doing something like Ready Player One. It's a curious thing to come to the end and find yourself the Emperor of Ice Cream.
When I say the book is atrocious, let me clarify by also saying this made me conversely hopeful for the film. Essentially all of Hitchcock's work (with notable exceptions) is based on fairly awful books, after all. Cline's novel is terrible for its smugness and its occasional inaccuracies are that much more insufferable for it. The way the film is terrible is that it spends all its energy trying to please the worst people in the world and seems to know that. For the blissfully uninitiated, Wade (Tye Sheridan) lives in a trailer ghetto in Ohio in the near-dystopian future along with a bunch of other colourful suburbanites who would have, in any other Spielberg film, been fully realized with just a few graceful strokes and character beats. Spielberg is very much like Stephen King in his ability to paint casual, familial interactions in graceful shorthand. In Ready Player One, character development is that one person is wearing a Joy Division T-shirt and another is wearing a New Order "Technique" T-shirt. I think this is interesting because it in fact does build character, in a way, but only if you have a pretty good working knowledge of the two bands. Enjoyment of the film is by invitation only. To escape the drudgery of their day-to-day, a good portion of the populace spends every waking moment in a virtual reality MMORPG where they can assume any avatar as long as it's owned by the backers of Ready Player One. Honestly, in a movie like this, the lack of Star Wars, Marvel and Harry Potter needs to be explained, lest it become, instantly, a deal-breaking distraction. It's essentially the Internet. Scenes of people walking around on the street with VR goggles on play like satire as written by someone who is either an idiot or thinks that you're an idiot.
There are no real stakes in this so-called "Oasis." If your avatar dies, you lose some things you found in that world, but you presumably respawn and carry on crawling and collecting. This makes the entire strategy of evil corporation IOI, where legions of interchangeable avatars are constantly swapping places in a warehouse/VR war room, nonsense. (IOI is led, incidentally, by bland John Hughesian bad guy Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).) Without rules, Ready Player One has created Quidditch: a sport by someone who has never watched sports in their life. The inventor of this realm, Halliday (Mark Rylance), dies one day and announces that he's hidden three keys in the Oasis and that whoever finds these keys will gain control of it. Deciphering their whereabouts requires an encyclopaedic knowledge not of '80s pop culture, but of all the things Halliday used to manufacture depth that were actually functioning as coping mechanisms for someone with an obvious social disorder. It's an act of deranged, messianic vanity and it plays strangely in our current situation in the United States. One could argue that it's never been more timely to talk about cults and narcissistic personality disorder; I'm not sure that Ready Player One is ready to go there, though. Wade figures out the first couple of clues using secret surveillance tapes that are now part of the public archive (hmm), and as for the third clue, Spielberg loses interest in the whole quest thing right around the time that we do. This results in a giant battle of billions of units of processing power versus billions of units of processing power, during which, if you were so inclined, you could trainspot the nostalgic ephemera and look to your neighbour for approval. Yes, it's a Glaive. The film plays along by narrating its more conspicuous references for the purposes of full nerdsplanation, you know, just in case you missed it. The pinnacle is a moment where Wade's avatar shows off a box full of imaginary action figures to a girl, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), he wants to impress. Chew on that for a second.
Anyway, at one point there's a scene where Wade and Art3mis/Samantha are hanging out together in the real world in the most boring sequence in a boring movie and he says it's kind of nice without all the edits and the noise and lights and shit. She agrees. Ready Player One is about how reality is better than any darned video game and how we should take the time to get to know one another. Nerds should stop flexing their newfound cultural privilege to be as awful as the jocks they've supplanted and instead try to get to know a real girl in the flesh and maybe earn a kiss by being less awful. At the end of it all, Spielberg makes it crystal clear that he doesn't give one flying fuck about any of this Ready Player One bullshit--not one bit of it. He doesn't understand the fetishism it represents, the isolation such devotions require, the tragedy of lives lived less authentically that virtual reality, by its name, suggests. It's the worst script he's ever shot (and there are hot contenders for that crown); the most disjointed and impersonal of his films since 1941; the first of his movies, again, that feels contemptuous of its subject. Spielberg is a lot of things, but a cold cynic is not one of them. Thank Cline for this new side of him. He's Spielberg's own private Annie Wilkes. Spielberg is by the end washing his hands of the whole thing in an anti-climax that makes no sense and doesn't care to, while offering up one of those classic Spielberg endings where, apocalypse be damned, here's one white girl and one white boy snuggling together in a perfect shaft of sunlight filtering through the Bat-leth on the windowsill. It's Spielberg's North by Northwest: a composite of what the people want and simultaneously a critique of what the people want. It's not as scabrous, certainly not as good (seeing as how Hitchcock's was born of bile while this seems just born of surprised revulsion), but it's just as long and I have my doubts he'll ever do anything like it again.