Ready Player One is a biting indictment of toxic fandom, hero worship, and nostalgia…and it has no idea it’s doing any of this. This is the rare film that is at once fascinating and incredibly dull – a prescient yet profoundly lazy blockbuster that says so much by saying so little. This is the worst Spielberg movie I’ve ever seen, but there is so much more to unpack here than in less offensive duds like Hook or Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Take for example, a scene about halfway into the movie’s excruciating 140 minute runtime, where the characters step into a very famous horror film. I won’t spoil what scary movie it is, but suffice to say, it’s one that I hold in the highest regard, and watch about once a year. Up until then Ready Player One’s endless references to pop culture had left me fairly cold, but suddenly they were referencing only one thing, and it happened to be one of my favourite horror movies of all time. For a solid two minutes I watched with my jaw agape as the film’s signature music, aesthetic, sets, and even actors were perfectly recreated before my eyes. And then it all fell apart.
The characters turn a corner and walk into a room filled with CGI zombies that look like concept art from Disney’s The Haunted Mansion movie. My heart sank. Ready Player One stole something I loved, did nothing new with it, and then threw it away in favor of the movie world’s equivalent of bacon. As the movie’s increasingly annoying leads leapt from zombie to zombie, babbling about their encyclopedic knowledge of everything entertainment, I realized that this is the inescapable nature of nostalgia. Nostalgia is trying to capture the feeling of a time gone by, with nothing but aesthetics to recreate it.
Ready Player One imagines a future where everything’s gone to hell, so the population escapes into a virtual reality world called the OASIS. The bolding is not for emphasis but because OASIS stands for *sigh* Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation. The OASIS is a massively multiplayer online game where almost everything is taken directly from existing properties. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, we see the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, the Delorean from Back to the Future, King Kong, Batman, and literally hundreds of other references, both obscure and obvious. We meet our protagonist, Wade Watts, a young white dude who’s obsessed with the old white dude who created the OASIS, James Halliday. This obsession is largely due to the fact that before Halliday died, he stated that whoever finds three keys hidden in the game will get total control of the world that he built, which basically means control of the real world as well, since the OASIS is so ingrained in everyone’s lives. The keys can only be found by someone who knows literally everything about Halliday’s life, including his exhaustive knowledge of nerd culture.
Ready Player One genuinely believes that Wade’s preoccupation with Halliday and all things geek is healthy. It occasionally pays lip service to the idea that there is more to life than compulsively memorizing facts, but never demonstrates this onscreen. Ready Player One imagines a world where toxic fandom is something to be applauded and gatekeepers finally get the power they’ve always craved. For evidence of why this kind of thinking is flawed, we need only look at the fan reaction to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. A contingent of Star Wars fans so vehemently hated the film and what it did to THEIR franchise (their doesn’t stand for anything, it’s bolded for emphasis) that they reacted in the most vitriolic way possible. They Tweeted death threats to the director and went off on barely disguised sexist and racist rants directed at the film’s diverse cast; one fan even created a cut of the movie that removes all female characters. It didn’t matter that the The Last Jedi told an interesting story, all that mattered is that it wasn’t the story they pictured in their heads – one involving a white male protagonist they could project themselves onto, plenty of references that only they would fully understand, and a simple story they could infuse with their own meaning. These fans seem to be the target audience for Ready Player One – a movie that abandons good storytelling and compelling characters in favour of never-ending references to other things.
Fandom is really just nostalgia with different name. It begins innocently – we watch, read, play, or listen to something that resonates with us deeply. We then try to experience it again and again, gradually paying more attention to the aesthetics and less to the meaning. When we see the thing referenced in other works we feel an endorphin rush of recognition, and are briefly transported back to that wonderful first time we experienced this singular piece of art. The thing becomes immune to criticism, and that includes criticism by the creators themselves. Because the thing isn’t theirs anymore, not really – it belongs to us, the fans.
Ready Player One is this idea made flesh. Hey, there’s the Iron Giant blowing people up with his lasers! So what if the theme of that film is that the Iron Giant is “not a gun” even though he looks like one? The previously mentioned horror film is a masterpiece of restraint, but let’s add zombies because zombies are fun. So what if George A Romero originally used zombies as social commentary on xenophobia and consumerism? There’s the Holy Hand Grenade from Monty Python and the Holy Grail! In that film, its detonation attracts the police who arrive and shut down the film’s production in one of the most inspired comedic endings of all time. In this film…it just blows up.
The film has a myriad of other problems. Neither the real world nor the OASIS are fully fleshed out, the love story is ludicrous, and character motivations take 180 degree turns with no provocation. The CGI is good, but never quite escapes the weightless feeling that so many computer generated film creations fall prey too. The comedic moments are painfully unfunny (it’s officially time to stop casting T.J. Miller), the villain is a non-threatening caricature, and the heroes are bland and lifeless whether filmed or motion-captured. No one in the cast is given anything to do, and the usually excellent Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance, and Simon Pegg turn in actively bad performances. Every song on the soundtrack is as painfully obvious as the music selections for Suicide Squad. Spielberg directs with his usual aplomb, which only serves to highlight how much he’s slumming it here.
There is a way to make this film work. Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods both celebrates and questions horror fandom. A sly reference to a particularly nasty scene in The Evil Dead is punctuated with the constant examination of why we want to see teenagers butchered in the first place. The film works as a standalone story that is only enhanced if you fully understand what the film is referencing, and how you are the target of the film’s criticism. Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s The LEGO Movie is almost as jam-packed with references as Ready Player One is, but it takes the stance that creation demands dismantling existing structures, and remixing them into something new. Will Ferrell’s villain in that movie has the same mindset as the heroes in this one: pop culture is sacred, and the greatest respect we can give it is to recreate it lock, stock, and barrel.
In the world of Ready Player One, no one creates anything new – they simply consume. It’s here that the film is at its most tone deaf, serving up a completely inadvertent takedown of fandom. George Lucas was a fan of Flash Gordon; he loved it so much he wanted to remake it for modern audiences, so they could understand what made it so special to him. When he couldn’t get the rights to remake it, however, he took what he loved about Flash Gordon, infused it with the works of Akira Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell, and Howard Hughes, and created Star Wars. Steven Spielberg’s influences are less obvious but still very much on display throughout his oeuvre; Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Walt Disney, and Stanley Kubrick all helped Spielberg create some of the best films of all time. In Ready Player One he is referencing a pop culture landscape that he helped create, which may be why the film feels so indulgent and unreflective.
I’ve written 1,500 words on the bleakness that is Ready Player One, but let me reiterate that this is not the future of entertainment, the way some people fear and others celebrate. The top grossing movie of 2018 is Black Panther which is one of the most original and exciting blockbusters in recent memory. Patty Jenkins made Wonder Woman, Greta Gerwig made Ladybird, and Jordan Peele made freakin’ Get Out. The future of art will always favour new voices and original stories, despite what a vocal minority would lead us to believe. After all, isn’t that what makes us fans in the first place?