Ready Player One really does feel like the pop-culture culmination of modern entertainment since the advent of Star Wars. Festooned with references, characters and trademarks from dozens of well-known properties from everything cinematic through to the video game world, Steven Spielberg delivers the ultimate expression of why we digest media, and possibly a glimpse into a world we could all be heading towards.
Ernest Cline delivered a remarkable confection of a novel back in 2011, certainly in pop-culture terms. Ready Player One crammed almost every single reference point since the late 1970’s across half a dozen mediums into a novel which, ultimately, told a fairly relatable David vs Goliath story set in a near-futuristic dystopia. It was a piece of work which seemed to operate like Marmite; for everyone taken in by its wide-eyed engagement with particularly 1980’s geek and nerd culture, someone else would respond that Cline’s prose was awful and the novel was a mess of winks, references and incohesive plotting which worked more like a gimmick than a piece of fiction. Wherever you stood on the spectrum, Ready Player One seems to have always been a polarising experience.
Which made the idea of a film adaptation even more intriguing, especially given Cline’s novel swiftly arrived in the hands of Spielberg. In many respects, this brought Cline’s work full circle, as Spielberg alongside filmmakers such as George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis, essentially created not just the cinematic blockbuster but the combination of pop-culture escapism and mainstream entertainment that drove the core of Cline’s novel.
Films such as Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, not to mention Back to the Future, which especially factors into Ready Player One on several levels, all remain the key cultural touchstones for Western audiences thirty or forty years on. Spielberg has arguably been the most successful purveyor of family escapism in cinema, blending skilled craft and an innate understanding of what audiences will connect to. And connections, ultimately, are what drive his adaptation of Ready Player One.
Cline’s novel is packed full of concepts and innovations which speak to where society may be heading when it comes to entertainment, and how it engages with the online world.
The OASIS, a virtual reality online world which connects people from across the globe with ‘avatars’ representing their virtual selves in whatever guise they wish to be, is purely a fast-forward extension of the online gaming world of the modern day; rather than sitting with a controller and headset in front of a screen, you put a visor over your eyes and port yourself into a virtual world with endless possibilities, all while never leaving your front room. Haptic rigs or body suits simulate feelings—from pain to pleasure—which you experience inside the OASIS. As protagonist Wade remarks, all you can’t do inside the OASIS is “eating, sleeping or bathroom breaks” – the basic, organic bodily functions virtual reality cannot replicate.
It feels like we are edging closer and closer to a world where audiences interact with technology on an imaginary level day by day – teenagers devote increasing chunks of their lives inside video game worlds where they develop online personas with skills, abilities and reputations, and more adults between the ages of 30-50 are playing video games than ever before, having grown up with the formative era of home video entertainment systems proliferated by Nintendo, Sega and the like. Cline’s novel suggests this can only end in a depressed, economically deprived world; one in which people are slaves to the OASIS while the difficult realities of the real world around them are left to rot and ruin, where the poor live in ‘stacks’, trailers piled up as high as skyscrapers, in what amount more as junkyards than townships – and this in middle America too, not some banana republic.
Hence why it is quite surprising to hear Cline suggest these developments could well be a positive, reacting to suggestions increasing levels of technology are contributing to the ‘downfall of youth’:
The Internet is one of the few things kids today have going for them. They’ve inherited a nightmare economy, a screwed-up environment and a bloated consumer culture poised on the brink of collapse. The Internet, on the other hand, gives kids access to the collected knowledge, music and art of our entire civilization. It allows them to communicate and collaborate with other people all around the world. I realize that some kids don’t do any of this and instead spend all of their time texting and surfing porn, but I think that’s a small minority. There are other kids out there crowd-sourcing film, music and art projects, using the online world to make the real one a better place. It gives me hope.
This is a sensibility Spielberg seems to pick up and run with in his adaptation of Ready Player One, written by Zak Penn alongside Cline himself. Ready Player One has a very clear message come the conclusion: technology can be a force for good, if used in moderation, and not at the expense of the real world. It’s not a message which seems aimed at youth as much as a Western society who are increasingly falling back on fantasy, or creating narratives which fit what they wish to believe, at the expense of objective reality or truth. Spielberg’s film is not political—the villains of Cline’s novel are not a totalitarian government state in the vein of The Hunger Games—but it is a deliberate sideswipe at the growing corporate stranglehold on both entertainment and commerce.
The villains of Cline’s novel are IOI (Innovative Online Industries) who have created an entire corporate monolith built around acquiring ultimate domination and control over the OASIS, with the intent of essentially monetising the entire system and increasingly turning it into ‘reality’ for the millions of gamers interacting with it. IOI are aware that by controlling the online system which controls, on a metaphorical level, the population, they thereby essentially take control of those people inside and outside the system. How that affects American society and beyond in terms of government reach and control is never explored in the novel or Spielberg’s film, and nor are the deeper economic and political issues which have led to the near-dystopia of 2045, but IOI as a simplistic source of evil work in the context of the hopeful philosophical ideal Spielberg works to bring out of the novel.
Philosophical and, ultimately, spiritual. Wade Watts, our hero, is a straight arrow protagonist, both in the real world as an orphaned ‘lost’ teenager, and as his skilled avatar Parzival; he begins the story as a devotee of the OASIS and its deceased inventor James Halliday and ends up an apostle, essentially, in a quest to find God. The entire story arcs around the ‘Easter Egg’ (so named for the gaming term for a secret discovery inside a gaming world) at the heart of the OASIS which Halliday declared, upon his death, finding would bequeath the entire system to the victor. Wade’s quest starts as a fascination with Halliday’s secrets as a genius game designer, and concludes with him as an almost messianic last hope for mankind—inside and to a degree outside the game world—who encounters its creator.
It’s not subtle. Halliday is quite clearly a variant on Steve Jobs, with Simon Pegg’s Ogden Morrow his Steve Wozniak, if their personalities were to a degree reversed, and Wade’s quest oddly explores the psychology of a character who is as much as a MacGuffin as a person more than Wade’s himself; he is really quite a basic, fairly bland lead character who operates as a necessary function to get the plot from A to B to C, and to reflect the central thematic idea about connecting to the real world; Halliday couldn’t express himself beyond the OASIS, couldn’t express his feelings to the woman he loved, and he turned himself into an enigmatic God-like figure within his creation in order to try and teach his eventual successor that lesson: to not lose touch with reality and value loved ones and friends, particularly in Wade’s case spunky fellow ‘gunter’ Art3mis.
Spielberg adds the suggestion at the climax that Halliday, in some form, may still reside within the OASIS, perhaps as a form of lingering consciousness he left behind, and its an idea which hints at a deeper level of magical mysticism behind a story which is rooted purely in technological fantasy; for all the Iron Giant’s, Mecha-Godzilla’s, Kong’s and on and on and on which populate the OASIS world Wade and his group of friends navigate, in the end the tale is about handing back control of the world, of reality, to the people themselves. That’s where Cline’s hope comes in, and its reflected in the screenplay; Spielberg believes the youth of tomorrow could be its saviours, connecting with each other virtually in order to fight back against monolithic corporate oblivion. In that respect, it’s a hopeful techno-fantasy as Cline suggests above.
Much like the novel, you sense Ready Player One will divide audiences, and there is a good chance that divide will split between those who have read the book, and those who haven’t. This is not to say everyone who reads the book will love it and vice versa, but those familiar with Cline’s source material may have a better understanding as to why Spielberg intentionally makes the film so light and filled with the kind of intense, overblown CGI that in many other blockbusters people would baulk at, or quite why he chooses to focus on a message of hope rather than a bleak dystopian outlook. There is a fair argument that Ready Player One doesn’t engage enough with the real world it venerates, electing to construct the OASIS as a deeper reality, but in the context of the story this feels understandable.
Spielberg had a remarkably complicated job on his hands adapting Ready Player One, despite the fairly clear cut and concise narrative structure. Cline himself has suggested Spielberg found making the picture a pleasing but endurance test of an experience:
He’s said that it’s the third hardest film he’s made, out of dozens and dozens of movies. He said Jaws will always be the worst. Saving Private Ryan was just brutal ‘cause he was recreating D-Day, day by day. And with this, it was like making two different movies at once – making a completely CGI movie, which ILM did all the special effects for, and then making this movie in the real world, and having them be parallel and cut back and forth. That was why it was astounding to me that he stopped, while we were doing post-production, and went off and made The Post. He was like, “Oh, that was so much easier. There were no special effects. I was just working with actors and setting up shots. That was a cake walk, compared to Ready Player One.
Spielberg had to pick and choose what pop-culture references to include and lose; Star Wars is out, getting the briefest of mentions; and The Shining (in easily the film’s strongest sequence) replaces the less iconic WarGames as one of the central set pieces inside the picture. He had to choose what characters to lose or iron out; I-rok, for example, moves from being a jerk of an antagonist for Wade to being a sardonic henchman foil for slippery villain Nolan Sorrento, with hit and miss results. He also had to decide what thematic elements to concentrate the film on without losing the heart of what the movie was about.
Ready Player One, on these terms, can be considered a successful adaptation. It is not Spielberg’s best work, nor the best script he’s ever developed, but only perhaps Robert Zemeckis could have directed this picture with the same level of knowing chutzpah, and even then you feel we would have been wondering why Spielberg wasn’t doing it. As a reflective culmination of the pop-culture zeitgeist he helped trigger, one which has only evolved over the decades and never truly gone away in mass media, Ready Player One feels as much like his destiny as the OASIS is Wade’s.
How much you enjoy it may depend on how much of an escape from reality you are prepared to let it be.
★ ★ ★ 1/2
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
WRITERS: Zak Penn & Ernest Cline
CAST: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendlesohn, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance
STUDIO/DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Bros Pictures