Some observations about Ready Player One, a film I more or less enjoyed. Contest these as you please.
1.) It’s a surprisingly ugly film. And I don’t mean in the sense that the Oasis—the MMO where basically everybody in the future spends every last available scrap of their dismal lives—looks like every trashtopia dreamed up in the eighties smushed together. (It is that, too. The color palette alone is off-putting. But there are some moments of beauty strewn throughout.) I mean the cinematography looks too crisp, and that means the lighting lacks the texture I’ve come to expect from Janusz Kaminski. Sets feels like sets. Lighting effects feel like lighting effects. I dig that expert directors like Spielberg are experimenting with hi-def digital photography, but man, this film did not look good. Maybe I’ll change my mind about this upon a re-watch.
2.) And that ultra-crispness in the photography only makes the CG scenes look worse. Yeah, Ready Player One is a sprint through the uncanny valley of death. One thing that I’ve been puzzling over is whether Spielberg meant the uncanny valley effect to bleed into the scenes set in the real world. Nothing in the film looks or feels real, even though it’s shot in the most high-quality way available. Again, a re-watch may change my mind.
3.) The video-gaminess of the Oasis is itself simultaneously well-captured and off-putting. From the incessant camera movements to the way nobody and nothing in it moves quite right to the stylized character designs and mannerisms, Ready Player One feels like one neverending cutscene. I’m ambivalent about that.
4.) Both in and out of game, there is always too much to see. One of the film’s greatest accomplishments—again, I admit I’m ambivalent—is that it’s genuinely overwhelming. Appropriately enough, viewers could likely spend a lifetime picking out every easter egg in the film. But would the volume of accreted details actually enhance the film or make it more meaningful? Or are they just… more? This is a question that probably depends very much on what each viewer brings to the film, and in its own way, it comprises a kind of game for the right kind of viewer. Ready Player One: pop cinema as a cascading series of Where’s Waldo? checklists.
5.) I’m not even going to bother talking about whether the film is postmodern or what that might mean.
6.) I’m more interested in the realization of Ready Player One as a decadent feast. As a piece of escapism, it’s… well, mileage may vary and all that. The basic appeal seems to be that it’s a chance to vicariously enter into the artifacts of nostalgia. The most fun I had watching the film wasn’t even the chase scenes or the final battle. Two scenes stood out to me. The first was the recreation of The Shining as a place, rather than a narrative. No longer simply an artifact, the film itself is something the players can jump into and walk around in, and many shots in that sequence were simply stunning, even when the waltzing ghosts of Disney’s Haunted Mansion were grafted into it. The narrative of The Shining no longer matters: only the love of particular moments and places within it. Then there’s the climax where Wade Watts, the hero played by Tye Sheridan, gets to talk to his god, the designer of the Oasis. James Halliday (Mark Rylance) takes Wade into his childhood memory, where they walk around young James’s bedroom: a sanctuary, an oasis, utterly cluttered with pop culture bric-a-brac. It’s a very Brian Wilson moment. That scene in the bedroom is also quietly moving.
7.) I said that the Shining set piece transforms a narrative into a place, and I think there’s something interesting going on with Ready Player One that is all about space and narrative. More specifically, it’s about memories and how they are used to construct narratives. But the narrative of Ready Player One is that Halliday has essentially turned the Oasis into his autobiography, and the player that is able to find the keys he’s hidden throughout it will experience the narrative of his life and come to really understand who he is. And who he is, it turns out, is the Oasis: a place. Wade gleans most of his clues in his easter egg hunt from a gallery of tableaux that showcase various moments in Halliday’s life. Here, too, memory is presented in terms of space, and with the ability to rewind, fast-forward, pause, etc., those memories are not intrinsically temporal. They’re only temporal when viewed and made part of the narrative of the player’s life.
8.) Much video game criticism for the last 20-odd years has focused on the form of video games as distinct from narrative. There are couple big through-lines Ready Player One engages. The first is that one about space. In video games, you explore and traverse space in a participatory way that is unique to them. But that space, its representation, and its interface with the user are all governed by algorithms. Which are fancy, exceedingly complex, semi-autonomous sets of rules. Games are rules. So it’s really, really weird how one of Halliday’s main themes is his hatred of rules. I’m not sure that this movie really does enough with that subtheme. One of the pleasures of a good game is the ludic freedom of playing within constraints, but seeing how far you can bend them to your advantage or the skill with which you can manipulate them. Yet Ready Player One spends a lot of time contrasting Halliday’s purity with the neo-feudalist corporation, Innovative Online Industries (IOI), which only wants to use the OASIS to further its control over the populace. The fact that Halliday is an obsessive with a god complex is muted by the enthusiasm the heroes have for his creation and the fact that it is pretty cool and all.
9.) Like all of Spielberg’s attempts to critique corporate capitalism, this one, too, feels vacuous. While it feels prescient enough, it’s genuinely weird that the film ends with a small group of gamers taking control of the Oasis and imposing their will on it as if that’s not a wee bit authoritarian. The main difference between them and the evil corporate goons is that they won’t profit from… oh, wait, no, that’s not it. Hm… Unlike the corporate goons, they don’t arbitrarily make rules about… er… Well, they don’t enslave people through indentured servitude. Which is good.
10.) What really makes the bad guy bad in this film is that he doesn’t have fun with the game. Well, that and he commits murder. But he commits murder because he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t relish gaming for its own sake. Which, again, is a wicked insight, because Halliday is the one who established the framework for winning the easter egg hunt. The prize is a controlling share in the wealthiest and most powerful corporation in the world. It’s a competition with no rules that prohibit abusive capitalist practices and with a prize that absolutely incentivizes them. So what if nobody has fun playing the game anymore? The point is not to have fun; the point is to win, because the stakes for winning are as high as they get. Halliday is deluded if he doesn’t get that. Maybe that’s part of the point. But Halliday, in the end, doesn’t feel like the subject of critique; he feels like so many other Spielbergian dreamers, a misunderstood soul whose inability to grow up is what grants him some sort of moral authority.
11.) Like many of Spielberg’s attempts at political provocation, Ready Player One fumbles a lot of the nuances, but it posits a lot of great problems. At its root, Ready Player One is about commercializing the subjectivity of escapism. Spielberg (and presumably Ernest Cline, who co-adapted the script from his own novel) celebrate the subjective agency of escapism. The free play of imagination is a touchstone in Spielberg’s body of work, and though he often tempers his embrace of its transformative power (Hook is a perfect example), he does seem to think it a good thing. But Spielberg has always been discomfited with commercializing the fruits of imagination, even though a case could be made that nobody of his generation except, perhaps, George Lucas, is better at doing that very thing. In short, there is no escaping the commercialization of escapism in a Spielberg film. To Spielberg’s credit, the contamination of imagination by commercial reality is always something he wrestles with, but there’s no getting around the fact that he has—very lucratively—benefitted creatively and monetarily from that intersection for going on fifty years.
12.) An perhaps unexamined problem in celebrating the subjective agency of escapism is the way Spielberg embraces subjectivity itself. Spielberg’s fantasy heroes are often very self-centered in their embrace of imagination, which is to say, there’s a sort of self-therapy streak to it all. Roy Neary, for instance, embraces the wonder of his close encounter; it earns him a ticket off this rock, but it destroys his family in the process. Even when other-directed, the self-actualization of Spielberg’s heroes tends to be tribal. In Ready Player One, Wade wins Halliday’s game, but instead of democratizing corporate decisions, giving all players a share, or finding other ways to subvert the system, he decides to run the world with his “clan.” So he finds community, but his tribe remains at the pinnacle of society’s hierarchy. This is a kind of escapism, certainly; it’s the escapism of the one percent, which has liberated itself—perhaps even, as in Wade’s case, through hard work, skill, help, and a bit of luck—from the problems of being one of the other ninety-nine. As long as they can have their fun, everything must be hunky-dory. Rather than shatter the subjective navel-gazing that structures Halliday’s game—and the lives of our heroes—Spielberg seems to arrive at at place where his heroes can be in the one percent but not of it, which is apparently a win in his book.☕︎