Sunday, September 2, 2018

Insert Quarter

Films: Ready Player One
Format: Blu-Ray from Cortland Community Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’m going to make some people mad now, or at least disappoint them. Ready Player One is pop culture pornography designed to wow anyone who sees it into loving it for its veneer and flash and ignore the fact that underneath, it’s the same kind of male fantasy fulfillment that this sort of film tends to be.

I say this as someone who could not be more of the movie’s target audience. Ready Player One is obsessed with the 1980s; I graduated from high school in 1985. It is in many ways the same sort of standard power fantasy that this sort of science fiction that I grew up on uses over and over. I recognized almost everything in the movie, from a ton of the avatars to the face of the demon on the back of Aech’s truck. I’m so much the target for this movie that when I knew the first piece of information about the third challenge in the film, I knew exactly what the answer was. But we’ll get to that soon.

Jump forward to the year 2045, where the world’s economy seems to have become entirely virtual and focused on something called OASIS, a huge virtual reality world where everyone spends as much time as they can. The real world has become so filled with junk and sorrow that everyone spends as much time as they can inside the virtual one where they can be anything they want. Our hero is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who goes by the name Parzival in OASIS.

To understand what motivates him, you need the backstory on OASIS, which seems to have been ripped directly from the story of Apple Computer. Uber-nerd James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) created OASIS and ran it until Halliday eventually forced his friend out, taking it over, and turning it into a pop culture haven. In OASIS, people can be and do anything, and there are places where, for instance, they can compete in massive PvP battles, earning money from the corpses they create. The real thing going on, though, is a massive treasure hunt.

See, in the real world Halliday has died. Before he did, though, he set up a massive Willy Wonka-esque contest. The first person to solve the three quests would receive three keys and would win…OASIS. Initially everyone tried to win, but now, years later, only a small handful are still attempting to find the keys. Called “gunters,” short for “egg hunters,” they compete in a road race that leads to the first key and that no one has ever completed.

So, we need companions and we need foils for Wade/Parzival. On his side will be Aech (Lena Waithe), a mechanic in OASIS and Parzival’s best friend. It’s a shock moment when Aech proves to be a woman in the real world. Aech’s PvP friends Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki) will soon be siding with Wade as well. Rounding out what will become known as the High Five is Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who will also be Wade’s love interest.

The foil is the IOI corporation, which has dedicated itself to finding the keys and taking over OASIS. Headed by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), IOI has legions of players, many essentially working as indentured servants when the company buys up their debt and forces them into servitude. Sorrento is aided by Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen), a real-world enforcer and i-R0k (T.J. Miller), an OASIS version of the same thing. We’re soon privy to the fact that Sorrento is pretty much pure evil and like many a Spielberg villain, is just in it for the money.

There are so many things to talk about here, and to discuss them fully, I’m putting the rest of this review under a spoiler tag. If you don’t want to know what happens, stop reading at the end of this paragraph. This will also be one of the last places I say something nice about Ready Player One. It’s really pretty. I mean, this is one of those rare movies that seems to jumpstart our imaginations in what film is capable of looking like. The Matrix did the same thing; so did Avatar. It will probably, even deservedly, win some technical Oscars. Anyway, it’s spoiler time.

So much in Ready Player One happens specifically because we’re given a world where just about everyone is dumb. The road race that leads to the first key is unwinnable. We’re told it’s unwinnable. No one has won it in the multiple years that it has been run. But Parzival figures out the key to winning by watching a completely random clip about Halliday’s life and connecting the dots—dots that someone almost certainly would have connected years before.

But let’s not stop there. A vast amount of the film relies on ‘80s pop culture, but it does so only secondarily. More important to the film is not pop culture for its own sake, but specifically the pop culture that Halliday liked. Knowing the pop culture references is less important than knowing Halliday’s connection to them—the film obsesses over the likes and dislikes of a dead white guy. It’s not the pop culture that matters, but the pop culture opinions of the dead white guy that matter.

As I said above, I knew the substance of the third quest the minute it was known that it involved Atari 2600 games. Of all the games available for the 2600, I knew the key lay with Adventure, and I knew that the key wouldn’t be winning the game, but finding and using the Grey Dot. In fact, I can tell you that the movie gets the Grey Dot’s location completely wrong. Oh, it’s in the black castle alright, but it’s in a secret room that requires the purple bridge to find. I mean, if you’re going to make the quest that easy to guess, why not show it being done the right way? And really, if you wanted to be impressive…use something like Yars’ Revenge or Superman.

The truth is that Ready Player One is exactly the movie it wants to be. I don’t bring things like gender and race into this blog that often unless they are a part of the movie in question, but in this case, I feel I have to. This is white male power fantasy. It’s the white guy who is the savior, and who has two women (one black) and two Asian men sacrifice themselves because he’s the chosen one who is going to save them all. He’s just another white Jesus, this time with a kick-ass VR rig.

Additionally, the presence of T.J. Miller is a problem. Miller has been credibly caught up in the Me Too movement. It would have been easy to record another person in his role—he never actually appears on screen. It’s another piece of arrogance in a movie filled with them.

There are more problems with this movie, but I’ll stop here. It’s pretty, and beyond that, it’s pretty empty of anything interesting or very different, sadly.

Why to watch Ready Player One: It is surprisingly gorgeous to look at.
Why not to watch: It’s pop culture porn and little more.


  1. Was not expecting a review of this from you; still, pleasantly surprised that we ended up on pretty much the same level of appreciation for it: nice to look at, but a little too much of a pretender to avoid falling into the pitfalls of the genre that it squarely sets itself up in.

    I saw a few clips pop up on YouTube when the film came out on digital, and watched a handful of them enough to be interested, so I figured what the hell and I rented the thing. Didn't get too much of the "white male savior" aspect that you pointed out on my watch, but it's certainly there now that I look back after reading your words on it. And yeah, I echoed the countless YouTube and Reddit comments that were aghast that the film set itself in this realm of gamers and egg hunters, with an unwinnable race as the first challenge, and somehow years go by before one guy even tries the thing of racing backwards from the starting line? Pleeeeease.

    Spielberg has gone on record saying this was the third-most difficult movie he's ever made. I feel kinda bad saying that this is only barely worth a single watch and little more than that in light of his comments, but if I said anything else I'd be lying.

    1. It is massively flawed for as pretty as it is. And while the white male savior stuff can be accepted or dismissed, the movie still has huge flaws all the way through it.

      Thirty years ago, I would have loved it.

  2. I agree with you for the most part, although I think I enjoyed it more than you did. The plot is just a bunch of recycled tropes and plot cliches and the fact that the entire OASIS is stuck on 1980s pop icons in the year 2045 is just weird. People would get bored with that crap. Also, your point about the white, male savior is well taken.

    There's also a laugh out loud moment where Art3mis, whose icon is a hot anime babe, is nervous that when she meets the hero in real life he won't like her, suggesting that she's unattractive. She's NOT unattractive and the reveal that she's hot made me laugh at how stupid the whole setup was. I think it would have been more clever and interesting if she had actually been a guy.

    I wouldn't mind seeing it again, having had some time to think about its many flaws.

    1. Right--Art3mis's issue is that she has a birthmark on her face which is clearly a disappointment to everyone in her world. I'm so glad you brought this up, because it's yet another thing I could have brought up in the review that plays into that white Jesus thing. Art3mis has a birthmark on her face which makes her "ugly" despite the fact that, of course, she isn't. And the fact that Wade still finds her attractive is supposed to make us think more highly of him--this is him showing that he's not superficial.

      How much more interesting would it have been for Art3mis to be a guy and have Wade end up with Aech? Or, shit...end up with no one because we didn't need a love interest?

  3. I liked it a bit better, entirely because of those visuals, but damn if I don't agree with every word of this review. Feeling a little ashamed I didn't quite pick up on those themes myself, but they are certainly there. Great job.

    1. It is unbelievably impressive visually...and that's about it. Those visuals are the sort of thing that gets noted, though, and it would not surprise me if this showed up in the 2019 version of the 1001 Movies.

    2. Another good book that got lost in cinematic translation and by Spielberg of all people. The funny thing is that most of the film's problems were due to Spielberg's poor casting choices and his re-(more PC)imagining of the book's characters.

    3. That it's Spielberg is a little disappointing, since one of his first movies (Jaws in this case) is vastly superior to its source material.

  4. You might be surprised by the lack of blow-back you're getting for this review, but I'm not. I really want to love this beyond the high concept, but the execution leaves so much to be desired.

    I do have to disagree with the previous comment though: The film is actually an improvement on the book, where the relationship (such as it is) with Art3mis is grosser and the trails are strictly who-knows-the-most pissing contest to which Parzival, in recurring defiance of any setup to pay-off, has always "just spent the past x months" mastering. Seriously, that happens so often I thought the author was trolling the reader.

    1. This makes me really not want to read the book, and I was kind of considering it.

    2. In my experience of both once being a teenager, and teaching them for years and years, nolahn forgets that a lot of those experiences are/were quite gross and entail pissing matches on multiple levels (with one's parents, teachers, friends, enemies, etc.). Just late last night, my brother extolled on how he missed the pissing matches we used to have at the supper table with my dad over books he forced us to read. I just wish that he had lived long enough to have read "Snow Crash," and I wish I could thank him for making me read "Lonesome Dove." It helped me realize that there were more great books/novels to read other than the Grand Masters. To his dying day he just never got my love of Heinlein or Asimov, but somehow he did appreciate a little Bradbury.

      btw, I had to redo this reply post as I accidentally hit the Publish button before I could semi-coherently rethink and correct my thoughts.

    3. Here's the thing--I learned early on that those pissing contests just get ugly very quickly. If you grow up in an environment like that, you either accept it and join in or react to it. You accepted it, it seems, and I reacted to it. My father used to regularly pick fights with me about the subject I have an MA in because he needs to be the smartest guy in the room. I can see gearing up for that fight, but for me, I just get agita.

      So for me, at least, it's not that the pissing matches exist, but that they make me really uncomfortable.

      Snow Crash, by the way, I liked until the last 20 pages. It felt very much like Neal Stephenson needed 100 pages to end, but his publisher put a gun to his head.