Scalding Hot Takes: Ready Player One
Steven Spielberg’s abysmal new film, Ready Player One, is essentially an endless stream of pop culture references so it seems appropriate for me to begin this article with a pop culture reference of my own.
To paraphrase the late, great Roger Ebert’s famous line about North, I hated, hated, hated this movie. I despised it. It made me angry. I can’t remember the last time I had as powerful a negative reaction as I did to Ready Player One. Sure, Death Wish enraged me but mostly it bored me. I knew going in that I was in for a grim wallow.
True, I did not have terribly high expectations for Ready Player One. I would have been happy to have skipped it altogether if it wasn’t such a formidable Scalding Hot Takes contender. Everything about the movie filled me with dread with one very notable exception: it was directed by Steven Spielberg. That dude has made some pretty terrific films and produced or Executive Produced a whole lot more. Like, some of my favorite movies. Movies like Jaws. And Back to the Future. And Gremlins 2. And Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It’s a good thing movies like those won Spielberg the proverbial lifetime pass, because I know how important the approval of an unemployable Juggalo like me is to a billionaire like Spielberg.
Spielberg is one of American film’s true masters, a great artist as well as a great entertainer. If anybody could take a gimmicky, self-indulgent, widely hated as well as loved best-seller like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and transform it into boffo entertainment, it’d be Spielberg. Walking out of Ready Player One, veritably vibrating with anger and disappointment, a thought hit me: if one of the greatest filmmakers alive could make, in Ready Player One, a film that is utterly worthless, then how god-awful would it be in the hands of someone like Chris Columbus?
Spielberg seems to have grudgingly and half-heartedly made Ready Player One as penance to the great Gods of commerce for having made a string of serious, somber-minded films of substance like War Horse, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies that didn’t exactly the set the world on fire, box-office-wise. It’s possible that Spielberg connected emotionally with this masturbatory celebration of infantile 1980s nostalgia but Ready Player One sure feels like the work of a hired gun limply going through the motions for the sake of a potential billion dollar payday.
Ready Player One immediately digs itself into a deep, deep hole it never crawls out of by opening with what feels like a good ten to fifteen solid minutes of dry exposition from our charisma-impaired protagonist Wade Watts/Parzival (Tye Sheridan) that’s briefly interrupted by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a sort of saintly amalgamation of Apple’s Steve Wozniak, Wille Wonka and God, also delivering groaning exposition because Watts finishes up the opening onslaught of relevant information artlessly delivered.
In Ready Player One, geekiness is saintliness and awkwardness is Godliness. This is one of several million ways in which the movie, and by extension, the book, shamelessly flatters its core audience of geeks, gamers, nostalgists, pop culture nerds and fanboys. But instead of feeling flattered, I felt insulted by the depths to which the film panders. Ready Player One relentlessly fetishizes the pop culture of my youth in a way that doesn’t add anything to our understanding of nostalgia or the powerful, largely unexamined role it plays in our lives and in society. It coopts rather than comments, and piggy-backs shamelessly on our affection for the pop culture that blew our minds when we were in our pre-critical stage.
Yes, Halliday is an elfin man-child uncomfortable in his own skin, which renders him something of a minor deity in the world of Ready Player One. Halliday kicks the action off by dying (just like Jesus did!) in a dystopian future where the masses find invaluable escape from the drudgery of their everyday lives into the world of OASIS, a sort of virtual utopia where everything is possible, and, even more impressively, you can interact with seemingly any character from across the pop culture spectrum without having to worry about licensing or intellectual property rights.
In his will, Halliday stipulates that control of his company and his vast fortune will go to whoever finds an Easter egg hidden somewhere within this virtual world. The film takes the form of an elaborate cyber scavenger hunt that pits eighteen year old dreamer Wade, his buddies and his love interest Samantha Cook/Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a conventionally beautiful woman with a birthmark who, in a lucky twist of fate, loves and appreciates all of the things Wade does, versus an evil corporation run by Nolan Sorrento, whom Ben Mendelson plays as just another asshole in a suit. A great hero needs a great villain. Conversely, Ready Player One’s empty vessel of a whitbread hero merits a similarly uninspired, stock villain and a love interest who’s pure geek wish fulfillment combined with the groaning old cliche of the awkward or geeky girl who becomes a raving beauty when she takes off her glasses or lets her hair down.
The quests our band of heroes embark upon take the form of the pop-culture Halliday fixated upon instead of, you know, kissing girls, like an extended sequence based on The Shining that made me fantasize about the ghost of Stanley Kubrick haunting the holy living fuck out of his good friend Steven Spielberg (who took over A.I from the old master when Kubrick died) as revenge for what Spielberg and screenwriters Zak Penn and Ernest Cline have done to The Shining.
Then again, Kubrick got off easy compared to Ted Hughes’ The Iron Giant, who is “re-imagined” here as a Godzilla-sized glorified Rock Em Sock Em’ robot and part of a vast army of licensed characters fighting for good against licensed, familiar pop culture staples fighting for pure evil.
Even when Ready Player One’s pop culture references aren’t insultingly obvious, they still inspired eye rolls and exhausted sighs from me rather than giddy, impish, conspiratorial delight. For example, in the background of one of the film’s many, many mindlessly kinetic sequences is a marquee promising Arnold Schwarzenegger as Jack Slater.
Because I have foolishly wasted my life mainlining pop culture, I recognized Jack Slater as the character Arnold Schwarzenegger played in Last Action Hero, which happened to be Ready Player One screenwriter Zak Penn’s first produced screenplay, written while he was still in college and subsequently re-written by pretty much every writer and script doctor in Hollywood, including Carrie Fisher and Shane Black.
Hell, I’d even pitched an article positing Last Action Hero as a prelude/companion piece to Ready Player One and when I saw Jack Slater’s name on the marquee all I felt was an exhausted, “Yep, that’s totally a thing.”
Ready Player One really only has two modes: exhausted and exhausting. It begins on a profoundly exhausted note, which seems appropriate given its grim dystopian setting and the fact that outside OASIS, things are pretty goddamn miserable. But the movie only really picks up during sensory-overload action sequences that throw so much at audiences in terms of spectacle and movement that they quickly become exhausting.
Ready Player One reminded throughout of the thoroughly and rightly reviled cinema of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer both in terms of the sheer volume of its pop culture references and, alas, in its fervent belief that pop culture references are so inherently awesome that they don’t need to be finessed into jokes; it’s enough to merely remind audiences of say, Duran Duran and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai’s existence, and then let nostalgia and memory do the rest of the work.
Alternately, I was continually reminded of how much better the almost eerily similar but far superior Black Mirror episode "USS Callister”—a penetrating exploration of Star Trek fandom and the poisonous narcissism, casual misogyny and racism and self-pity at the heart of so much fanboy culture—handled these issues.
Like Ready Player One, “USS Callister”, also revolves around a socially awkward tech genius and the genius behind a popular multi-player online game, in this case Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons). Like Halliday, Daly escapes into the pop culture he loved growing up, in this case a science fiction television show very much like Star Trek.
But where Ready Player One depicts Halliday as an impish man-God who just wants to share with the rest of humanity the joy and pleasure he experienced playing video games and watching movies as a kid, in “USS Callister”, Daly emerges as an all-powerful monster whose need to escape into the past, and into the world of pop culture is ugly and selfish, narcissistic and oblivious to the needs and wants of people who have better things to do with their time and their lives then be terrified puppets in Daly’s regressive games of power and control.
“USS Callister” feels so much more emotionally authentic and plugged into the zeitgeist than Ready Player One. Spielberg's insta-blockbuster, a sort of Frankenstein's Monster cobbled together from bits and pieces of blockbusters that came before it, represents escapism in the truest sense in that lets you escape having to think of the larger consequences and ramifications of the movie’s deification and romanticization of lazy childhood nostalgia.
Ready Player One labors under the delusion that the cheap buzz of familiarity that comes with recognizing something more or less instantly recognizable attains an exponential cumulative power through numbing, overwhelming repetition. Instead, the opposite is true. For me at least, familiarity bred contempt, and recognizing one of the millions of things that Ready Player One resurrects in an I Love the 80s, “Hey, remember this?” manner was more likely to inspire aggravation than appreciation.
I am a deeply socially awkward geek who lives in a pop culture world of his own devising and has profound trouble dealing with other human beings and the real world. That is a personality type that should be viewed with pity and concern, and treated through extensive psychotherapy and powerful psychotropic drugs, not held up as some sort of ideal.
It speaks to how lifeless and inert Ready Player One feels despite the never-ending stream of empty spectacle that the only moments of spontaneity in it come courtesy of T.J Miller’s shitty ad-libbing and improv as the voice of a malevolent bounty hunter type dispatched to stop Wade and his posse.
Like everyone else, I am very much over T.J Miller at this point, but the mere existence of ad-libbing speaks to how storyboarded and computer animated seemingly every molecule of this movie feels. Compare that to something like Jaws, which is widely considered the Big Bang that kicked off the Summer blockbuster era but tonally feels as improvised and refreshingly loose as a Robert Altman movie from the same time.
How much did I hate Ready Player One? If I were not professionally obligated to watch it for this column and the podcast, I would have walked out halfway through, and I NEVER walk out of movies.
To put things in Jay Sherman terms, “It stinks!”
Yes, Ready Player One spent 140 minutes jerking me off but instead of pleasure or release, all I experienced was rawness, bleeding and painful chafing.
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