It is not bad to say that “Ready Player One” will be one of Steven Spielberg’s more controversial projects. Even before the release, this adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 Bestseller – and one author’s nerdgasm of a novel – was exposed to an unusually high level of the internet for it. It was only to be expected. Mr. Spielberg tackled controversial issues ahead – terrorism, slavery, the Pentagon papers, sharks – but nothing that is likely to spur a hornet’s nest defensivitet, contempt and fiery “in fact” – is the theme of this film is video games.
And not just video games. “Ready Player One,” written by Mr. Cline and Zak Penn, immersed in the fanfare of magma, male self-pity, and techno-mythology, where she was once an innocent pastime. Spielberg, a digital filmmaker and lover of an older school, goes much further than most filmmakers to explore the aesthetic possibilities of a form that is often rejected and misunderstood.
With the help of his regular cinema photographer Janusz Kaminski and production designer Adam Hausen, he is a major virtual landscapes avatars competing in a vibrant pop-culture theme park, an interactive museum of entertainment in the 20th and 21st centuries, a labyrinth of niche tastes, cultic Print and blockbuster callbacks. Spielberg navigates this store with his usual finger color and loads every frame of information without losing the brightness and speed of the story.
Nonetheless, the toy weapons for social media and pop-up cultural criticism have been locked up and loaded. Mr. Spielberg to take bets and his players serious and not serious enough to be accused of clutching and mocking, but did not get and could not see beyond – in the course of “it” is the lush protoplasm For three or four decades is the largest part extinguished our cultural discourse. Whatever you call it – revenge of nerds, the universe prerogatives, civilization breakdown – it is a force that is both emancipatory and authoritarian, innocent and pathological, adorable and corrosive.
Mr. Spielberg and some of his friends have helped to create this monster and given it a credibility goal and opened it up to any suspicion. He is the only person who could have made this film and the last person who should have been near the material.
This material has its own problems. Mr. Cline’s book – readable and fun without being exactly right – is a mish-mash of Kless and Kliché. Less than 10 years after its release it already feels a bit dated, in part because the dystopian vision and in part because of the improved vision nerd seems male pin and angry inadvertently optimistic.
In the movie, set in 2045, Wade Watts (a young man played by the nice, gentle, comfortable Tye Sheridan) lives in the “sticks”, a vertical pile of followers where the poorer residents of Columbus, Ohio (Oklahoma City in book) , cling to hope, dignity and their VR gloves. Humanity has been ravaged by the usual political and ecological disasters (among them “bandwidth ranges” referred to in Wade’s introductory voice-over), and most seek refuge in a digital paradise called Oasis.
The world – less a game than a Jorge Luis Borges cosmos populated by wizards, robots and racing drivers – is the creation of James Halliday (Mark Rylance). After Halliday’s death, his avatar revealed that there were a number of easter eggs, or secret digital treasures, where the discovery would win a lucky player’s control of the oasis. Wade is a “gunter” – card for “egg hunter” – determined to pursue this quest even after most other players are tired of it. Among his rivals are some other believers and Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), head of a company called IOI who wishes to bring Halliday’s paradise under corporate governance.
In the real world, IOI encourages Oasis fans to raise debts that it collects by forcing them into indentured servitude. Sorrento’s villain sets a blow on two fronts – clashes in the Oasis mirror chase through the Columbus streets – it inspires Mr. Spielberg to celebrate crossing virtuosity. The action is so fast and engaging that some possibly literal thoughts can be brushed aside. I did not quite understand why, considering Oasis’s global reach, all relevant players were so wise in Ohio. (If someone wants to explain, please find me on Twitter so I can curb you.)
But, of course, Columbus and the Oasis do not represent real or virtual realities, but rather two different modalities of imagination. Wades avatar, Parzival, collector and poss of fighters: Sho, Daito, Aech and Art3mis, who is also his love interest. When the people associated with these identities meet in Columbus, they are not exactly as they are in the game. Åke, big and man in the oasis, is played by Lena Waithe. But the mobility of electronic identity remains an underutilized opportunity. In and out of Oasis, Art3mis (also known as Samantha, and portrayed by Olivia Cooke) is a male fantasy of female badassery. Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki) are referred to as sidekick duty. Multiplayer self-evident game could have given a chance of a less conventional division of heroic labor, but the authors and filmmakers lacked the imagination to take advantage of it.
The fun part of “Ready Player One” is the incredible and generous distribution of pop cultural treats. Tribute is paid to Mr. Spielberg retirement colleagues John Hughes and Stanley Kubrick. The visual and musical allusions are eclectic enough that no one is likely to feel omitted and everyone will probably feel a little lost from time to time.
Nostalgia? Well, what really animates the movie is a sense of history. The Easter hunger takes Parzival and his crew back to Halliday’s biography – his bad collaboration with Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), his attempt at romance – and also through the development of video games and related pursuits. The story is literary and sentimental in well-known ways, and sets a struggle for control between idealistic, artistic entrepreneurs (and their legions of fans) and soulless corporate grievances.
Halliday is a cute, shaggy nerd with a shameless Northern California drawl and a deeply difficult way, especially around women. Sorrento is an autocratic bean teller, a will-be champion of the universe who does not even like video games. These characters are clichés, but they are also allegorical figures.
In the film they represent opposite principles, but in our world they are pretty much the same guy. Many of the star-eyed-do-it-yourselfers tinkering in their garages and giving lives to their dream dreams back in the 70’s and 80’s proved to be superior superman fantasies of global domination all the time. They shared their wonderful creations and played the rest of us for suckers, gathering our admiration, our attention and our data as profit and feudal tribute.
Mr. Spielberg embodies this duality as perfect as anyone living. He is frequent by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and a Gandalf for Rivers and Hobbits who did Google, Facebook and the other components of our current Oasis. He has been a human child and mogul, wide-eyed artist and cold-eyed businessman, praised for making so many wonderful things and blame for destroying everything. His career has been a wonderful enactment of capitalism’s cultural opposites, and at the same time a series of deep personal meditations about love, loss and imagination.