Ready Player One Is Both a Celebration of and a Heady Critique on the Shallowness of Pop Culture

Posted by March 20, 2018 Comment

Semi-spoilers of Ready Player One below, but no major plot points or surprises not in the trailer.

There’s a worrying trend, at least for me, of kids not playing video games. I know, it’s a strange world we live in. Instead, they are watching videos of other people playing video games — in which Ready Player One should fit in perfectly, as we are an audience watching people watching other people play video games.

Ostensibly set in the near future but, as with all good science-fiction, really set now, this film is about so much being fought in the headlines and in the homes of today. It’s about how you choose to be perceived, which you is the real you, how companies see you from the information you allow to be shared, how the real power in the world is in companies, and how the internet, designed to resist such control, can be overwhelmed if we let it — and how the power of games can teach us much about our real selves.

HopkoDesigns fab 'Ready Player One' poster

I went to see it yesterday at the BFI IMAX cinema in London Waterloo. We got an introduction from Steven Spielberg, Tye Sheridan, and Ben Mendelsohn, which was nice. And an annoyed Spielberg, who had to go to the proper premiere up the road in Leicester Square and so would be denied seeing the film for the first time in IMAX. Sorry, Steven — I recommend you try it.

I really enjoyed the movie — possibly up until the very end. But isn’t that often the way? It certainly stands as part of an unofficial thematic trilogy, the previous two being The Matrix and Avatar. The plot is not exactly complex — character portrayals tend towards stereotype rather than complexity, and the hero is a white guy surrounded by his more diverse sidekicks. But its accomplishment is creating a wonderful and convincing world, separating the mind from the body to convey new experiences for the audience without losing a relatable element, and giving us another world we will want to visit again and again.

And really, many of these flaws in Ready Player One are both excused by the fact that Oasis is a game based upon all of gaming and pop culture, so of course, the hero’s quest, the pop culture tropes, and the familiar character types are going to be here. But their presence reinforces the central feel and tone of the movie. Basically, Hollywood flaws make this a better, more enjoyable movie without having to be satirical. Ready Player One has its cake, eats it, then regurgitates it up into the best cake you could ever want.

The most depressing thing about this world, and all the avatars in in when you stop and think about it, is that by basing everything on pop culture, or more specifically the pop culture enjoyed by one dead old white guy, is that it takes this world and limits it to the confines of comic con. There is mention of Tolstoy‘s novel War And Peace, but only by way of a quote by Lex Luthor. The archives and libraries are devoted to this one man’s life, anything else seems to be jettisoned. The world may be a far better alternative to the shitty world that people are escaping from, surviving rather that fixing, as the protagonist narrates — and yes, you can go mountain climbing with Batman — but the awful world gets sucked into it. The callous indifference of people zeroing out, the gambling nature of the game, the vultures, the grifters, reflecting all that went wrong in the world and bringing it, inevitably, into Oasis.

No more is that so with the chief antagonist, who is probably the epitome of the eighties mood that the movie seeks to reflect, the businessman in his padded shoulder blue suit and tie, with slick hair, manicured, and likely to start Omnicorp any day now. And his avatar in the Oasis? A bigger, stronger, businessman in his suit and tie. But with darker hair. It is glorious. And by commodifying the game, wanting to own it, change it, create subscription tiers, turn it into a greater business opportunity and willing to take lives in that pursuit.

The CGI character work is extraordinary but benefits from portraying game characters, and so by not trying to be totally real, sidesteps the uncanny valley beautifully. And when you see reality and fantasy portrayed side by side, it seems utterly natural. But for all of that, it is probably Mark Rylance who stands out as Halliday, the dead creator of the game who still exists as an avatar, providing the quests to be taken. It’s his history diced and sliced, and sifted for meaning and clues, that gives this film soul. It’s something different, an added element and his performance as the film’s moral core, if one formed by the shallow pop culture that fills his world, literally and figuratively, that sets both his character — and this film — apart. He is Willy Wonka, this is his Chocolate Factory and the keys to kingdom are available.

Art3mis

The use of avatars is plentiful and diverse, and it sets out how people can be who they want to be. If anything the disparity between the avatars and the real people behind them. When revealed, it’s as large as it could have been, and it feels like they missed a couple of tricks here, especially with Art3mis. But they went further than a lot of the films in this genre have bothered to go.

Oh, and yes, the references. It’s like Ready Player One watched The Lego Movie and said “hold my sarsparilla.” And the amount of backroom deals to have everything from Minecraft to Zelda to Spawn to the films of John Hughes and Stanley Kubrick must have been something to see. Yes there’s Star Wars, yes there’s Batman, yes there’s the back catalogue of the Atari 2600, yes there’s Halo, yes there’s Spawn, yes there’s Akira, yes there’s pretty much everything you can name. Oh, and the stacks are totally mini-Mega City Blocks. No Marvel that I saw, though.

To those who object that the Iron Giant is used as a weapon of war, well a) it’s not actually the Iron Giant, it’s a suit — it’s cosplay, and b) not everyone dressed as the Joker is a serial killer either, and also c) the Iron Giant is a gun. Don’t worry, Iron Giant fans (of which I totally count myself), it plays out well. That it is a shallow reflection of the Iron Giant, is true of everything in the film. And it might even be the point. Also the lead of the movie, Tye Sheridan, playing Wade Percival Watts is a massive Iron Giant fan too. There are many references I didn’t get, or only got later when explained to me — the incantation from Excalibur? Really? But nothing that stopped me enjoying the film. Those I was with, some got every reference, some got none, it was equally enjoyed.

The delineation of realities, the contrasts between the mundane and the fantasy worlds, and the way each start to seep through to the other also put me in mind of Roger Rabbit. I wasn’t expecting the Spielberg movie that I would most compare Ready Player One would be Who Framed? — but there you go.

Ready Player One is a heady experience that’s fun to rattle through and likely to inform much cosplay over the summer. And afterwards also gives you a chance for some serious examination on the culture that you consume yourself. Or give you the chance to say, “screw you, grandpa, I’m going for the coins.” It also has ramifications on the way we may think about Net Neutrality, Cambridge Analytica, and Facebook. It couldn’t be more topical right now.

But yeah, there’s that ending. I was disappointed — it seemed to fight against the film and some of the precedents set about the way the world worked. I had that with Minority Report too. But… that was just a few minutes. The rest of the film remained glorious.

And yeah, I want one of those omnidirectional running boards, please. Now.

Ready Player One is out from Warner Bros. on the 28th of March in the UK and the 29th in the US.

(Last Updated March 20, 2018 12:20 pm )

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