READY PLAYER ONE – Spielberg crafts an ugly romance with pop-culture porn

‘Ready Player One’ is much more than the love letter to gaming culture some corners of the internet would have you believe. The earlier suggestions from some that this could be the “Black Panther for gamers” were ridiculous. Whilst its director, Stephen Spielberg, has admitted his affinity for the 80 with regards to the influences of this film, I viewed it as more as an affirmation of the timelessness of certain aspects of popular culture that draws not only on video games but also on cinema. Within this affirmation, however, is the painful reality of the dysfunctional romance we as audiences have with some of these iconic totems of gaming and cinema.

The argument could be made that the influences of cinema are actually the more forceful visual elements of the film. Consider the appearances of a raging King Kong and a rancorous T-Rex in the film’s first real action set piece – a dazzlingly kinetic car race or the spectacular Helms Deep type final battle that features the Iron Giant and a mech-Godzilla. In between all this is a basic adventure that engages our lead, Wade Watts/Parzival (Tye Sheridan), a teenager living in a 2045 American dystopia. Like most of the people in this reality, he spends most of his time with a virtual reality setup fastened to his head to enable him dive into an uber expansive video game called the OASIS with an avatar bounded only by the limits of imagination (and maybe code).

I will say this: the idea of the OASIS game is the gaming nerd’s utopia. A confluence of everything in the history of everything that has to do with gaming and pop culture. For Spielberg, it’s an obscene goldmine of nostalgia just for the sake of it. In the aforementioned race, Wade’s machine of choice is the DeLorean DMC-12 from ‘Back to the Future’ – nothing exciting. Now when our protagonist’s eventual love interest, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), rolls in on Kaneda’s iconic bike from ‘Akira’, a huge grin sprawled across my face. This grin quickly dissolves when another character, Wade’s best online bud, Aech (Lena Waithe), deems it fit expouse to us the most basic of Akira references. Yes, ‘Ready Player One’ is that blunt sometimes.

This race,  which runs through a disintegrating model of Manhattan, is the first of three tests in the hunt for the sole Easter Egg in OASIS that will gift a fortune to the victor. The game was developed by the reticent gaming aficionado and tech genius, the now-deceased James Halliday (Mark Rylance). The three tests unravel the painful layers of regret and joy that defined him and indeed, Halliday is the most important character in the film. The only piece that feels carefully crafted, fighting the nostalgia porn bursting through the screens for our attention.

‘Ready Player One’ runs for almost 150 minutes. It has a semi-tedious but coherent plot and a ton of characters, almost all of which are emotionally uninteresting. But it does have juicy ideas that skew into disturbing territory. There is a certain ambiguity that doesn’t come out as cute and heart-warming as Spielberg intends. A more forceful voice is required when dealing with the millennial drugs that are online gaming platforms and the consumerism that fuels them. It’s this kind of consumerism that is responsible for our antagonist Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).

Sorrento is probably the only true thing in this world. It’s all about the money. He wants his company, Innovative Online Industries, which has an army of gamers and pop culture maesters, to find the Easter Egg, assume control of OASIS and basically put in ads. Well, there is a trillion dollars at play too. Sorrento would be right at home in the darkly comic cutthroat corporate world of Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Robocop’.

‘Ready Player One’ makes the mistake of drawing a line between the real and virtual when there really isn’t. Not in 2018. The idea of people spending hours on end in a video game will only be alien to someone stuck in say, the ‘80s. Even the Super Nintendo emulators on PC that became popular in the oughts are almost the prototype for this world with the appearance of the likes of the Battle Toads and so on.

At its core, ‘Ready Player One’ is a metaphor for how people relate to each other and the unlimited potential of the World Wide Web. The pure of heart will argue that places like OASIS have the potential to forge lasting bonds and project the very best of humanity. It’s an argument this film nods to. But there is an underlying melancholy to the narrative that is disturbingly ignored. I wasn’t asking for a binary resolution but for heaven’s sake, the biggest danger to the web is not just an evil corporation that wants to fill 70 percent of the screen with ads.

It is a big problem for me that ‘Ready Player One’ never acknowledges the virtual world as the drug it is here and the fact it is an escape from an eroded reality. The depiction of the real word is one of the grimiest and bleakest Spielberg has overseen since ‘Minority Report’. The idea of “The Stacks”, the slum where Wade lives, speaks to a class divide and the compartmentalisation of the have-nots. But all this is just brushed aside. There is no thoughtful interrogation of a society that sees the destitute invest mortgages in a video game. It is simply presented as an investment in a massive treasure hunt. In truth, the film itself is a mere secondary infection of consumerism and escapism when it should be so much more.

As sniffy as I may be with the handling of some of this film’s ideas, there is quite a bit to like about ‘Ready Player One’. It really does hypnotize you in parts. There is this beautifully composed sequence with Wade and Art3mis in Aech’s dingy warehouse base catching their breath after the intense car race. It’s entrancingly lit and The Temptations are soothingly disarming us with ‘Just My Imagination’ whilst a half-constructed Iron Giant overlooks them in the background. More visual marvels like this come our way and yeah, Duh! It’s Spielberg. His mastery of the blockbuster and inducing wonder is almost second to none.

There are times I wondered if ‘Ready Player One’ was a manifestation regret on the part of the 71-year-old filmmaker because of his contribution to popcorn cinema. Such regrets are of course unfounded. Spielberg created more pure cinema than the world deserved. But there is a subtle admission from our director that he has been corrupted. He is now a pusher serving, small fixes of pop culture in ‘Ready Player One’ that provide a temporary high. A dose of Ryu here. A puff of Batman there. Some very cheap stuff from T2 also shows up reminding us of the cannibalising reality of what the mainstream cinema has mutated into.

It’s telling that Spielberg has Indian Jones 5 in the works and I can’t help but think of that hilarious South Park bit with him and George Lucas raping Dr. Indy. The worst part is that millions of us are cheering them on.

It pains me to say the more I think about ‘Ready Player One’, the more repulsive it gets. I wonder if the 2011 novel it’s based on contained more depth. Surely there is meant to be more of a method to the fantastical pop culture madness. In the meantime, persons like me, yet to read the novel, have to contend with the ugly image Spielberg paints of modern mainstream cinema. An image I identify with more than I would like to admit. Spielberg knows most of us are Wade and when it comes down to it, we remain junkies and that red button is never an option.

delalibessa@yahoo.com

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