On its surface, Ready Player One is a simple adventure movie with a derivative plot inspired by Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In the future, everyone spends their time in the virtual world called The Oasis. After its creator—James Halliday—dies, he leaves behind a contest that will grant the winner control of The Oasis and half a trillion dollars.
Scruffy nerf-herder Wade Watts teams up with a band of rogues to win Halliday’s contest and defeat an evil corporation dedicated to taking control of the virtual world. Watts and friends take the audience on a tour of 1980s and 90s geek culture while a nostalgic soundtrack plays. The good guys win. The bad guys lose. Director Steven Spielberg proves he can still make a decent flick.
Ernest Cline’s book Ready Player One came out in 2011. At the time, people loved it. Times change and it’s now popular to base the concept of both the book and movie as an unapologetic, uncritical trip through nostalgia. It’s the Hot Topic of stories, a blind celebration of the vengeful “nerd culture” that has come to dominate all forms of media to an oppressive degree. Vox blamed the backlash on the toxic gamergate movement. “Is Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’ as Sexist and Godawful as the Book?” The Daily Beast asked.
But here’s the thing. Ready Player One is a tragedy. What seems like a fun adventure movie is actually a horror movie with a lot to say about the way we live now, the way we might live in the future, and the pitfalls and perils of loving video games too much. This is Spielberg reflecting on the culture he helped create, and telling the audience he made mistakes.
The world of Ready Player One sucks. This is a dystopia. Watts was born into a world where, he says, “People stopped trying to fix problems and just started trying to outlive them. These days, real life is a bummer.”
Watts delivers this monologue over footage of a mother playing around in The Oasis while her kitchen burns behind her. A child tugs on her robe, trying to coax her back to reality, and she shoves him aside. This is a world where the old scare story about a parent getting so focused on a video game that they let their child die is a daily reality.
This is a world so fucked that people have voluntarily decided to live in the Matrix. It’s as if the world watched the struggling humans of Wall-E and decided, “that looks nice.” The Oasis’s in-game currency (the equivalent of World of Warcraft gold, for example) is the global currency. Corporations can kidnap debtors and push them into VR slavery in something called loyalty centers. All that’s left to the people of this world is a video game steeped in the culture of a civilization half a millennium old.
A gray filter seems to cover every scene and the colors of The Oasis often seemed washed out and muted. Tracer, a character from the popular video game Overwatch, never jumps off the screen because her bright orange pants are lost in this grim sea. The only scenes where colors pop and the screen comes to life are those that take place in the past and focus on the life of Oasis creator James Halliday.
Ready Player One is a tragedy because The Oasis’ creator is full of regrets related to both his life and his creation. This is a man who, despite creating a world everyone loves, was deeply unhappy. The contest he designed relies not on a encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture—as it often does in the book—but on the personal life and regrets of Halliday.
At one moment during the contest, players have to beat a race by going backwards, a reference to a moment in Halliday’s life when he wanted to shun the responsibility of the tech he created. His friend and business partner Ogden Morrow attempted to make him realize that you just don’t get to create a world-changing technology then pretend you’re not responsible for how it’s used.
In another moment, players wander through Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and help a trapped Halliday right one of his biggest regrets—never dancing with a woman he had fallen in love with. It’s a scene that’s much different from the book and telling in its choices. Spielberg has long admired Kubrick’s work. He famously finished A.I. after Kubrick’s death, and fucked it up. Kubrick died as one of the most well-respected artists in cinema. Spielberg went on to dip back into his own well so many times, we got Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
The Shining was Kubrick’s most poorly received work, and arguably his most commercial flick. Spielberg takes the master’s classic footage and fills it with dumb zombies, and a giant axe wielding Jack Torrance. In Spielberg’s hands, the horror classic becomes another dumb—but fun—carnival ride.
The world of Ready Player One is a bleak hellhole. Everyone is obsessed with pop culture from the last millenium. It’s as if pop culture stopped and never moved on. Watts’ aunt’s shitty boyfriend blows all of the family’s money on microtransactions and slick skins of Jim Raynor from Starcraft. The bad guy is essentially a villainous video game executive who wants to sell tiered memberships to the Oasis and populate people’s visual field with pop up ads. That’s his grand plan.
Spielberg is a man who helped shape the pop culture landscape of the current era, and when he looks back on it in Ready Player One, it isn’t so much a celebration of pop-culture as it is a warning about what happens when we bury ourselves inside of it. Halliday did that and he was miserable. Watts only grows as a person when he realizes he has to log off to make real friends.
The man who created the game everyone plays and loves died miserable and alone. Culture is not your friend and pop-culture will not save you.