Ready Player One suffers from the same flaws as the eponymous novel it’s based on (written by Ernest Cline)—awful dialogue, lifeless characters, and the dubious assumption that trivia is culture. The Steven Spielberg film also suffers from certain hallmarks of the director’s previous work—a forced happy ending, a compromised story for mass appeal, and a convoluted plot that develops from cinematic necessity rather than by logical progression.
All the same, more important than asking if Ready Player One is a good or bad film is the question, “Could Ready Player One have been a much better film?” And the answer is undeniably yes. Its premise of a world that favors the virtual over the real is, at this moment, deeply relatable. In Ready Player One the year is 2045 and a virtual reality called OASIS offers an all-encompassing package of everything that we today get from various digital mediums. It’s part video game, part social media platform, and part digital currency. OASIS is where people meet friends (although users are anonymous) and cultivate identities (your avatar can look, dress, and behave however you want). In other words, OASIS is an escape. But an escape from what?
The real world of Ready Player One isn’t explored much, although enough details are given that you get a general impression of what it’s like. Poverty, debt, and despair are everywhere. There’s economic inequality between those who control the machines and those who depend on them.
The book insinuates catastrophes involving overpopulation, drug addiction, and climate change that have concrete effects on the story’s background; for the film, Spielberg avoids these catastrophes and their effects (as he’s prone to do), instead opting for more cutely named incidents like the “corn syrup droughts” and “broadband riots,” which have no narrative function. A case in point: in the book, when the corporate villain Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) tries to kill the teenage hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) by blowing up his “stack” (mobile homes stacked on top of each other), the explosion is blamed on a meth-making accident. In the movie Sorrento’s murder attempt happens but the cover-up is left out.
Oddly enough, the inequality of Ready Player One’s real world doesn’t leak into OASIS. The founder of OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), has been dead for five years by the time we join the action. He’s left three “Easter egg hunts” for users (different from the hunts in the book—now more comparable to video-game challenges that also involve riddles). The first user to complete all three hunts will gain Halliday’s majority shares in OASIS and have total control over the virtual world. Wade wants to win so he can “buy a bunch of cool shit” and “not be bored.” (Spielberg does what he can with the novel’s dialogue, which in most cases means replacing it either with stuffy exposition or self-referential descriptions.) Sorrento wants to win so he can stuff OASIS with corporate ads. (Ironically, Ready Player One is itself stuffed with lingering shots of Starbucks logos and bags of Doritos chips).
It’s worth noting that OASIS is already commodified. Digital and real-world upgrades cost money, and when you die in OASIS you “zero out,” meaning you lose all the money and items you’ve acquired up to that point in the system. Moreover, when you die in OASIS, those around you can collect the items you’ve lost. So, one would imagine that a digital inequality would’ve developed between those who had recently zeroed out and those who hadn’t. Wealthy users could also just hire poor users to obtain virtual items—either through completing challenges or from plundering other users. Wealthy users could also hire poor users for protection so they wouldn’t be at risk of zeroing out.
While some such inequality is present in OASIS—for example, Sorrento hires a goon to track down and win special items for him—the effects of that inequality aren’t. The OASIS experience is generally the same for all users. Gaming skills and pop-culture knowledge are competitive against wealth and resources. Ready Player One’s real world might’ve succumbed to oligarchy, but OASIS somehow hasn’t.
Debt peonage plays a major role in the plot. Samantha (Olivia Cooke), the heroine and Watts’s love interest, joins the real-world rebellion (not in the book) because her father was worked to death in one of Sorrento’s “loyalty centers” (where people work as virtual drones for Sorrento’s company) to pay off his debts. As the film drags along, Samantha also finds herself indentured in one of these loyalty centers. Evidently credit is still the way of the world in the future. Nothing is drawn from this though. It’s just a hollow plot device.
The only scenes in Ready Player One worth rewatching (or even watching at all) are when Wade and his “clan” are completing Halliday’s OASIS challenges.
The first challenge is a vehicle race through a booby-trapped New York City where participants are chased by King Kong and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. The action is exciting (although at points it teeters toward overwhelming). The second challenge occurs in The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. While most of Ready Player One’s pop-cultural references are cheap and unnecessary, this one is actually meaningful and exciting. An earnest sense of terror is maintained as one of Wade’s clan members is washed down the hotel’s labyrinthine hallways by The Shining’s iconic elevator blood, only to escape to Room 237 where she’s boxed in between Shining characters: Mrs. Massey on the inside and Jack Torrance on the outside. This challenge should’ve ended with at least one of Wade’s clan members zeroing out, but unfortunately Spielberg opts for melodrama instead of tragedy.
Ready Player One makes clear Spielberg’s strengths and weaknesses as a director. The special effects and cinematography are impressive. And when he wants you to feel a particular emotion, you will feel it. But when he isn’t sure what emotion he wants you to feel, you end up feeling nothing.
Cline’s novel is a gormless eulogy to gamers, nerds, and consumers of mostly 1980s pop culture. Spielberg’s adaptation tries to tone down that gratuitous pandering so as not to exclude the blockbuster-size audience he wants to attract. But without the novel’s gratuitous pandering, Cline’s story is just nonsensical. The purpose of the novel might be transparently pathetic but at least it’s something.