Saturday, August 11, 2018

Ready Player One (Warner Bros., Amblin Entertainment, De Line Entertainment, Dune, RatPack, Village Roadshow Pictures, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the Blu-Ray disc of the 2018 film Ready Player One, directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline based on Cline’s novel of the same title, which Charles and I had both read and enjoyed. The film was considerably changed from the book — despite the presence of the original author as one of the screenwriters — but the basic outline of the plot remains the same: in the U.S. in 2045, conditions for most people have deteriorated so much that they live in “stacks,” essentially giant columns of old trailers stacked on top of each other. Real life has become so oppressive and dull that most people spend most of their time online in an overarching virtual-reality simulator called “OASIS,” invented 20 years previously by reclusive computer genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance, dressed so baggily and unsexily it’s hard to remember this guy has a very large and blessedly uncut cock — I know that because I’ve seen him in the film Intimacy, a sort of Last Tango in Paris knockoff in which he got to go full-frontal quite a lot) and his former business partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg). Cline has admitted that the obvious parallel with Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak was intentional, though a lot of the material has the gloss of fiction — it seems that at one point Halliday had a crush on a woman named Karen, screen name Kira (just about everyone in this movie has an online OASIS avatar as well as a real name), only he was too shy to get to first base with her and she eventually married Morrow just before Halliday forced Morrow out of the company. Early on in the film we see a video Halliday left to be shown after his death (I suspect Cline was basing this at least partly on Timothy Leary and his decision literally to broadcast his death online) in which he declares that there will be a worldwide contest in the OASIS to find three hidden keys and an Easter egg (computer slang for a message or object hidden in a program), and the first person to find all these items in the OASIS will inherit the entire system from him. This, of course, has attracted the attention of the villain, CEO Nick Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) of the sinister company IOI (which stands for Interactive Online Industries), who have thousands of staff members toiling away at Halliday trivia looking for clues to the keys and the egg, which are hidden and accessible only to people with an extensive knowledge of 1980’s cultural trivia. (As Ernest Cline readily admits in one of the bonus featurettes, he was a teenager in the 1980’s and therefore remembers and experiences the culture of that period with the sort of nostalgic glow I bring to anything from the 1960’s.) 

Charles and I were both disappointed that one of the most powerful sequences in the novel — a duel between hero and villain within the 1980’s video game Joust — didn’t make it into the movie, though I suspect many of the differences between book and film were based on what rights could or couldn’t be cleared. Ready Player One isn’t the film either Charles or I imagined when we read the book (for one thing, I had wanted the real-world scenes outside the OASIS to be filmed in black-and-white, with only the OASIS scenea in color, to reflect the drabness of real-world existence in the film’s 2045), and a friend of mine who liked Blade Runner: 2049 as much as I hated it said one of the reasons he liked Blade Runner: 2049 is it undermined the convention of the “quest” narrative in which the chosen individual finds the magic object or completes the task that redeems all. Certainly Ready Player One is a classic “quest” narrative in which the hero Parzival (on-line avatar of Wade Wells, played engagingly if not brilliantly by Tye Sheridan) uses his knowledge of video games, 1980’s culture and Hallidayiana to conquer the villainous forces of IOI and win the prize. By picking the name of the hero of the Holy Grail quest story in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s prose poem (a fascinating work in its own right because it’s one of the few first-person accounts from the Middle Ages of just what it was like to be a knight) and Richard Wagner’s opera, Cline underscored the “quest” part of the narrative and the extent to which his hero is the “Chosen One,” though for someone who at the start of the film resolutely refuses to “clan” with anyone else he ends up with a group of confederates with whom he sticks, including his girlfriend Art3mis a.k.a. Samantha (Olivia Cooke) whom he meets and falls in love with in the OASIS long before he’s met her in the real world, along with Aech, a young Black woman who’s assumed the avatar of a Black male in the OASIS (Lena Waithe); and two Asian-American kids, teenager Daito (Win Morisaki) and 11-year-old Sho (Philip Zhao) — though Daito died midway through the novel, in its most tragic scene, all five of the modern musketeers live to the end of the movie and they take over the OASIS as a joint enterprise, turning it off two days a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays) so people will regain some involvement with the real world and try to better it instead of just retreating into the fantasies of the OASIS. 

Some of the changes between book and film seem to have been dictated by rights issues, some by director Spielberg not wanting to come off as a total egomaniac (he had the writers cut way down the number of references to films he directed or produced), and some simply to bring the effects budget closer to something resembling reason — though even so the movie’s post-production effects work took so long that Spielberg was able to make a whole other movie, The Post (the recent drama about the Washington Post acquiring and publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971), while waiting for the various effects houses to finish all the special-effects shots. There was potential for an even more interesting movie in Ready Player One the book, but the film as it stands is quite good, engagingly entertaining in the best Spielberg manner. I did have one quibble: the sequences in the OASIS looked just too video-gamey, with the actors taking on the cartoonish appearance of game characters — real video games in 2018 have a greater visual clarity than much of this movie and I had imagined the OASIS delivering state-of-the-art resolution comparable to that of a digitally shot movie. According to a “trivia” post on, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shot the “real” parts of the movie on film and the OASIS scenes in digital to establish the sort of visual contrast between the worlds I would have wanted to do by having the real-world scenes in black-and-white — and in one sequence in which the heroes fool the villain by hacking into his OASIS feed and thereby presenting him a scenario he thinks is real, Spielberg expected the fact that this sequence was shot in digital to give it away to the audience. Ready Player One is also an example of the anti-corporate tic that still runs through a lot of popular entertainment; despite the takeover of virtually all our lives by giant corporations, the popular artists of the world still take enormous amounts of corporate money to produce these at least mildly anti-corporate entertainments. Just as I was beginning to see the Frank Capra parallels in this plot, writers Penn and Cline hammered them home by quoting the line from It’s a Wonderful Life, “No man is a failure who has friends.” 

In some ways Ready Player One is a Libertarian fantasy of the heroic entrepreneur who creates an alternative universe and his heroic-entrepreneur successor who saves it from a corrupt bureaucracy — like The Hunger Games, Ready Player One can sustain both a Libertarian reading and a quasi-socialist one in which the capitalists are the bad guys and the heroic radical the good guy (and one of the most chilling aspects of Ready Player One is the off-handedness with which Nick Sorrento orders and carries out the destruction of the “stacks” in which Wade lives, just to eliminate him as a rival to the contest — he survives because he’s somewhere else when the attack occurs, but the aunt who had raised him and her asshole partner get blown up). It’s also ironic that Wade’s home base is Columbus, Ohio, which also figures in Omar El Akkad’s American War as the new capital of the United States (this book is also set in the late 21st century and describes a future in which climate change has eliminated much of the California coast, including Los Angeles and San Diego, and all of Florida except for a few scattered high bits that survive as islands; what’s left of the U.S. government passes a law providing for the death penalty for anyone who still uses fossil fuels; and as a result Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, along with South Carolina and Texas, secede and form the “Free Southern State,” resulting in a 20-year civil war and a bioplague that kills millions since both sides in the war use bioweapons) and figured in the recent special Congressional election in Ohio, in which Republican legislators split Columbus between two Congressional districts to keep them both reliably in Republican hands, only a Democratic challenger was able to mobilize enough voters from Columbus and its suburbs to come heartbreakingly close to defeating the Republican in a district that went for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by 11 percent. Who knew that Columbus would suddenly become a focal point for American politics both in fiction and in real life?