The emptiness of Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg's latest movie is clear about the various cinematic universes it references. But its moral universe? That's a different story.

As a child of the '80s who heard that Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One was going to pack a punch as a futuristic nostalgia tour, I came to the theater ready to recognize. I learned a tough lesson instead: It turns out I was desperately unhip as a kid, because I left Ready Player One with my bingo card almost blank.

Basically nothing I remember — Oregon Trail, Super Mario Bros., Willow, The Never-Ending Story, Clue, Strawberry Shortcake, Rainbow Brite, Pee-Wee's Playhouse, The People's Court, Jem and the Holograms, He-Man, She-Ra, Duck Hunt, Pac-Man, Smurfs, Sweet Valley Twins, Paula Abdul, 3-2-1 Contact, The Little Mermaid, Zelda, Labyrinth, Tetris, Madonna, The Print Shop, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, the Cabbage Patch Kids, Girl Talk, Garfield, Bugs Bunny, Ramona Quimby, My Little Pony, Care Bears, Narnia, Garbage Pail Kids, Troll dolls, Silly Putty — made it in.

(That list may seem long but I was secretly testing you: If you skipped bits because reading a litany of pop culture objects someone was obsessed with as a child wearied you, you may find parts of this film tedious.)

But this is all fine! I'm here to report that you can still have a good time at Ready Player One even if you don't get most of the references. In fact, I remember going to Universal Studios to see how Jaws was made and thinking the fin sticking out of a grubby swimming pool looked a little fake. It didn't matter much: I hadn't seen Jaws, so my investments were minimal. "What did you think of Backdraft?" my aunt asked me. I told her it was a very impressive fire, wanting to be polite. (I'd never seen that film either — cf. "unhip child" above.) And honestly, it mattered so much to her that it kind of was impressive! That's the point of Universal Studios: to show you amputated bits of movies you've seen and drive home how bowled over you should be by the ones you didn't.

(This was also a test: Do you remember the bit about my aunt from the graf above? If yes, you stand a chance of remembering the aunt in Ready Player One. Congratulations: No one else did.)

Ready Player One is basically the movie version of Universal Studios. It's friendly in an overpriced aren't-simulations-seductive-and-amazing kind of way, and it wants you to have a good time so much that you want badly to agree.

And because Steven Spielberg is Steven Spielberg, you mostly do!

Ready Player One is a classic good-and-evil story about a world where people's real lives are so miserable that they spend all their time hooked up to a virtual reality system called The OASIS where they get to live as avatars that represent their fantasy selves. You can do anything in The OASIS, we're told; you can even climb Mt. Everest with Batman.

Unfortunately, the creator, James Halliday — who cut out his friend and co-creator a la Steve Jobs — hated his creation so much that he destroyed this delicious pleasurescape where everyone could relax and have a good time. When he died, he announced that he'd hidden an "Easter egg" in the game that would give whomever found it control of the entire system. With one masterful stroke, he turned his paradise into a second dystopia, where everyone routinely logs in to run awful races until they die in a variety of horrid ways, losing all the money and riches their avatars had accumulated.

This is not, by the way, quite how the movie puts it. Ready Player One will keep trying to tell you that James Halliday is a good guy — a gentle, brilliant soul, in fact. A guy who loves his creation and whose approval our hero craves. I have decided that, like so many things in this movie, this is a test, and if I passed it, so can you! Don't be fooled: Halliday is bad. After all, who but a monster would decide to subject these sad human souls who just want some whimsy in The OASIS for goodness' sake to a second set of dreary incentives beyond the ones they endure in their real lives? And not just any incentive: an incentive so world-bendingly powerful that an evil company literally hires people to play the game — which Halliday ostensibly designed for FUN — as work? As literally anyone could have predicted they would? Because Halliday injected hyper-mega-capitalism into a world that he claimed stemmed from his hatred of rules and love of play?

Anyway: By the time we encounter The OASIS, it is a hellscape where people — this is not a metaphor — race around the same doomed track over and over and over, failing every time.

Oh, I forgot to tell you about our hero. His name is Wade, he's 18, and he has an aunt. He is obsessed with James Halliday and spends his days trying to find the OASIS Easter egg. In this he is eventually joined by his best friend Aech (played superbly by Lena Waithe, who needs a spinoff film because this character totally steals this movie), his rival and love interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, who will win every Oscar someday — really, have you seen Thoroughbreds?) and two players, Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki) who could have used a little more time.

The key word there is eventually: Wade, you see, calls himself Parzival after the heroic knight who wanted to do it all himself. Much like his hero and tormentor, James Halliday. He and Art3mis eventually join forces to try to work out how to find the three "keys" before the evil corporation IOI — which also runs debtors' prisons called "loyalty centers." Art3mis' father died in one of them.

Those are real stakes. But keeping people from dying in debtors' prisons sort of requires becoming fascinated by Halliday, who the movie repeatedly compares to Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. Everyone keeps trying to find his "Rosebud," and I am genuinely curious as to whether Spielberg intended this as a secret takedown of that film, given where that "Rosebud" comparison goes. Because I haven't told you the worst thing about Halliday yet. It's this: He keeps footage of almost every interaction he's had, every movie he's seen (and when), etc. His archive of himself is rivaled only by Beyoncé's. And here's the crazy part: He expects people to use this archive to figure out what he's most sad about and how he might translate those things into a game. That's how you "win" The OASIS.

I see lots of people comparing him to Willy Wonka in reviews, but Willy Wonka just wanted the kids not to touch stuff! He did not — as I recall — expect the millions of players using his game to posthumously psychoanalyze him by literally using up their lives to study the ephemera of his.

I can't quite figure out whether the movie finds this project reasonable or troubling. And look: I'm a Miltonist. I have no leg to stand on when it comes to dedicating an unspeakable number of hours trying to understand a brilliant man who's dead. But what really makes Ready Player One a dystopian hellscape isn't so much the trailer park "Stacks" where Wade grew up with his Aunt Alice or the surveillance drones or corporate corruption: It's that millions of people have spent FIVE YEARS that they could have spent randomly climbing Mount Everest with Batman or whatever … running the same dumb race to crack Halliday's code. And the code turns out to be "love Halliday enough and absorb enough of his life that you can remember that one thing he said that one time."

I'd like to think that the movie's "embrace the real world" message is a repudiation of this, but the brutal narcissism behind Halliday's "game" is never really exposed. Mark Rylance plays him as so kindly and loveable that it's hard to see the solipsist who mistreated his best friend and then decided his specific frustrations were important enough that people ought to comb through footage of his every interaction.

As for our hero, Wade seems likable enough, but he might, as Halliday's would-be successor, be almost as callous. I guess he learns a little from Halliday's errors — the movie's main defense of Halliday's crazy mission seems to be that it's meant to protect whomever takes over from his same mistakes — but he doesn't spare a thought for his murdered aunt — or any of his murdered neighbors, all of whom died because of him. Unless I'm mistaken, the only reference to Alice's death takes place during Wade's conversation with the movie's corporate villain; he's trying to make the villain believe he might really shoot him and invokes his aunt's death to make the threat seem real. (It isn't. He just doesn't care about her that much.)

(Can you tell that this bugs me?)

What's great about this movie is how much fun it has reconciling some of those big questions — "team or go it alone," "geek supremacy or corporate control" — with flashes of exceptional humor. A nod to The Shining is one of Ready Player One's weirdest and most rewarding treats (and references), and random characters like the villain's "fixer" I-R0k have personalities so unnecessarily distinct that the scenes sparkle for their unpredictability. An example: While trying to understand how "real people" survive in the "real world" whose side the movie comes down on, I particularly appreciated a scene where a man buys carrots; that tiny detail did some crucial world-building.

It's just a fact that Spielberg is a wizard at what he does. Ready Player One absolutely does that Spielberg thing of weaving incredible visuals together with stakes that go through several intriguing reversals so that the whole thing really does feel like a quest in which goals are adjusted and lessons are learned. And it does all this with his trademark joyous combo of dread and play.

And equality: It's not trivial that, of the five players on this team, two of the most important and skilled are women.

What I can't figure out is whether this story about how one man's love of various films and games led him to build a thing that won its own fandom — made by a man like Spielberg, with fandoms and fans of his own — can really escape the slightly sick loops of worshipful overinvestment it seems only vaguely interested in disciplining. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with fandom and allusions and references, but there's an emptiness at the core of Ready Player One that feels more aligned with the "virtual" side of the "reality" that supposedly triumphs.

Then again, maybe I missed something.


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