Movie Review: Ready Player One (2nd Opinion)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Ben Mendelsohn, and Olivia Cooke
Plot: A gamer competes in a VR world for a billionaire’s inheritance.
Aka Fan-Pander: The Movie
I like a great deal of things that would be considered part of “fan-culture,” but any attempt to directly sell to that center of my brain results in me immediately becoming suspicious. It is like receiving an email from a Nigerian prince telling me he’ll split his inheritance if I just help him out of this one jam. It’s disingenuous. That’s a problem, because instead of empowering us, the internet has sadly transformed are ability to catalog media into one of the greatest pieces of social currency. Thus, a movie, where the key to saving the foundation of society is the same skill set needed to win free drinks at any random pub trivia night, becomes incredibly suspicious to me.
Doubly so when it is directed by Steven Spielberg. It wasn’t that long ago that Spielberg was derided by fan communities for “raping” their childhood by computer-graphically enhancing ET and the sucking the soul out of Indiana Jones. For seemingly the same people to turn around and be excited for a Spielberg movie that takes all of their favorite things, computer-graphically enhance them, and suck the soul out of them (The Iron Giant is not a gun, its the whole point of that movie) has left me kind of dumbfounded.
There is part of me that gets it. Our lead character drives Doc Brown’s DeLorean through a battlefield full of our favorite heroes of comics and video games armed with Monty Python’s holy hand-grenade against an ubercapitalist douchnozzle that out-douches his 1980s counterparts armed mostly with homogenous NPC-type characters and loot box monetization. This is tailor-made by an expert. If anyone knows how to dazzle your basest entertainment brain cells, it is Steven effing Spielberg, and as a pop-culture “Where’s Waldo?” collage it is bound to entertain. That basically puts it on par with a large quantity of fan-art and fan-fic. It’s fun, but there’s no reason to care.
It takes place in a world lacking in natural resources or an effectively prosperous economy, where everyone spends their money on a state-of-the-art virtual reality version of “The Sims.” The Willy Wonka esque creator has hidden three keys to get a hidden artifact that would earn you full ownership of that world. We follow the attempts of Wade Watts, our unnecessarily long-winded narrator. Watts is played by Tye Sheridan, a supposedly intrepid yet mild-mannered hero who is rendered completely lifeless. There is a theory that some heroes are made milquetoast so that is easier for us, the audience, to see ourselves in them and all the better character building was saved for supporting characters. Like how Neo’s crew in The Matrix and Harry Potter’s friends are more interesting adventurers than they are, and the only reason why they are the heroes of their stories is to fulfill a loose-fitting “chosen one” cliche.
Watts ends up putting a target on his forehead when he finally wins the first key in a fairly exhilarating race. So, while the Evil Captain Business (played by heavy-lifting Ben Mendelsohn) tried bringing real world stakes by targeting Wade outside of the game, Manic Pixie Dreamgirl (played by a thankless Olivia Cooke) pulls him into her resistance toward total corporate overlords. It sounds like every cyberpunk dystopia cult film from the ‘80s, but it never really feels like it because the thing they are fighting for is simply a convenience. It seems on par with fighting over which 11 herbs and spices Colonel Sanders uses. Or something just as mundane. Like secret fast food szechuan sauce.
The original novel (which I have not read) came out in 2011, and I’m thinking the idea that there might be an inherent nobility in our content loyalty might have still seemed believable. However, a lot has happened since then. GamerGate. Unreasonable Marvel vs DC feuds. Szechuan Sauce freakouts. Toxcity has taken over fandom, and this movie comes so close to having something to say about it. When it comes to pulling the trigger, it hesitates and doubles down instead. What content really needs, according to the movie, is just better gatekeepers: the RIGHT people to make the RIGHT choices. It never concerns itself with defining what is right or if any of this is even worth it. It tries. “The real world is, ya know, real,” is as close as it comes to a revelation. Kudos for going toward the stupefyingly simple approach (I often find them much more genuine), but the movie has a hard time proving it. It is too in love with content to make a good enough argument against it.
I realize the irony that I, as a person who has ultimately defined himself mostly through the content he considers himself a fan of, would think this way about this movie. Like I already mentioned, I react badly when pandered to. That said, I can definitely see the movie getting by on pure spectacle with people. The biggest flaw that stops this from being just a fun romp is a technical one: constant exposition. Watts almost never stops talking, mostly in narration, once the movie starts. I get that a info-dump in the beginning just to introduce us to the world might be necessary, but he never stops explaining things. Even in dialog
In one key scene, they hack into the villain’s VR gear and convince him he has left the game by using photoreal versions of themselves as avatars, essentially holding him hostage in cyberspace. This could not be clearer. And yet, when the scene plays out, it ends with them stating step by step how it all worked.
If the movie is going to dance around unrestrained fan obsession without stating anything of merit about it, at least, take to heart its attempt at a final thought: that your identity does not need to be wrapped up in the content you consume. Consider this review your first challenge. If you like Ready Player One, this is not a judgment of you for liking it. I am just some doofus with a different opinion.
Sidenote: Despite some people claiming disrespect toward Kubrick, I did enjoy The Shining part.