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Non-Review Review: Ready Player One

Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Reader Player One is a very curious piece of cinema. It is an incredibly flawed piece of work, with a lot of its flaws so fundamental that they are threaded into the very architecture of the film. Screenwriter Zak Penn has offered a very thorough and involved reinvention of Ernest Cline’s source novel, a ground-up renovation of Cline’s catalogue of popular culture references and collection of narrative tropes. Indeed, Penn’s screenplay improves a great deal on the novel that inspired it; junking and reworking entire sequences, bulking up supporting characters, trying to find a beating human heart.

Worlds apart.

More than that, Ready Player One provides Spielberg with the opportunity to go “all out.” There is a sense watching Ready Player One that Spielberg has approached the film not as a collection of popular culture references and in-jokes, but instead as an attempt to reconnect with a younger audience. Whether or not Reader Player One is the right source material for such an attempt, there is no denying Spielberg’s energy and vigour. Ready Player One is a dynamic piece of film, Spielberg demonstrating all the technique for which he is known, but with an enthusiasm that puts younger directors to shame.

However, there is no escaping the biggest issue with the film remains its source material. The problem with Ready Player One as a film is that it is an adaptation of Ready Player One as a novel.

Back to the past.

The biggest issues with Ready Player One announce themselves with the premise. These flaws runs so deep that even a thorough and committed adaptation can not offset them. They are baked into the film, from its very conception, and cannot be entirely exorcised without fundamentally changing the film’s identity. The issues with Ready Player One can be condensed into a single sentence: Ready Player One is a gigantic ode to pop cultural nostalgia that fundamentally misunderstands its own core dynamics.

On the surface, Ready Player One is a story about the ownership of a popular culture. It is the tale of a generation who have fashioned their mythology from intellectual property, a psychological landscape signposted by trademarks and copyrights. It is a story set in a world where it seems like the entire frame of reference is existing artifacts of popular culture, where it is not enough for the story itself to make references for the reader or viewer to identify, but the narrative actually has the characters converse in references to everything from There’s Something About Mary to The Fly.

A sting in the tail.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this idea. It might even be insightful, given the modern pop cultural moment. After all, the twenty-first century is arguably the era of remix culture, where the intellectual property is the star and the brand is the icon. In the new millennium, it seems like artists have even embraced this referential conversational culture. Today, pop cultural events seem to exist in conversation with one another, from the obvious mirroring of sequels and reboots to something more abstract like the science-fiction “greatest hits” remix of Annihilation.

There are certainly interesting conversations to be had about this phenomenon, about the extent to which the structure pioneered (or at least popularised) by Family Guy in the late nineties has become a dominant cultural force. Ready Player One seems to take this idea of “remix culture”, of nostalgic fixation, of referential popular culture, and push it well past its logical extreme. Ready Player One unfolds in a world where this culture of references and nods is not the dominant culture, but the only culture. It is a fundamentally dystopian tale.

Off the books.

However, Ready Player One never seems to acknowledge the nightmarish qualities of a world that can no longer imagine for itself or conceive of an original future. Instead, Ready Player One unquestionably embraces nostalgia. “Why can’t we just go backwards, you know?” asks architect James Halliday at one point, a line that proves to be a vitally important clue to solve one of his riddles. “Bill and Ted did it,” he elaborates, adding an obligatory pop culture reference. Indeed, one key sequence has the protagonist literally driving the time machine from Back to the Future backwards.

To be fair, there are moments when the cinematic adaptation of Ready Player One comes close to grappling with the horror of this reality. Most notable in the manner in which Spielberg and Penn rework the second challenge on the hero’s journey, which involves having the characters wander into a beloved classic film and literally inhabit the world. The novel chooses a nerd eighties adventure about super-intelligent teenagers saving the world; the film chooses a horror movie in which the characters find themselves trapped within repeating cycles of violence.

Doomed.

For the novel, nostalgia is an indulgence; it is something to be savoured and enjoyed, wish fulfillment of the highest order. For the film, there is a sense that nostalgia is something slightly more dangerous. Indeed, the decision to shift the pop culture reference from a bland (but beloved) eighties teen comedy to a cinematic classic seems decidedly pointed; the intrusion of these computer-generated characters into a world so lovingly and carefully crafted by an auteur seems like a dark joke of itself. It is not merely the horror movie setting that is grotesque, it is the intrusion and distortion of that setting.

However, there is only so far that Ready Player One can question or interrogate its nostalgia, given how integral that nostalgia is to the source material. Indeed, there is something disconcerting in the film’s seeming lack of awareness about its inherent contradictions. To pick the most glaring example, Ready Player One is a story about efforts to prevent the exploitation of such intellectual property by anonymous corporate enterprises, but one seemingly oblivious to the fact that these characters are created and maintained by such capitalist interests.

Trusted ad visor.

There is no irony here. Again, perhaps this reflects the realities of the modern world. After all, enthusiastic reviews have praised Ready Player One as “Black Panther for nerds”, both referencing another brand and equating “nerd” with a racial identity. This is something that has become quite common in recent years, with nerd culture often equating its own experiences to those of the African American community. This demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the African American experience, equating preferences for intellectual property owned by multimedia conglomerates more than a shared lived experience.

Ready Player One aligns neatly with this perspective, and never questions it. It is a movie that unequivocally condemns an a large corporate entity trying to monetise this shared imaginary realm, with the ultimate evil embodied by a corporate suit (whose avatar is literally a corporate suit) who wants to put pop-ups in the virtual realm. However, the irony of complaining about such hypercapitalism is lost on Ready Player One, a film populated with references to familiar brands and soundtrack choices.

Virtual insanity.

Ready Player One condemns the horrors of capitalist excess as embodied by the creepy “IOI” corporation and demonstrated by the ominous “Loyalty Centres” that the company operates, but which also has its characters blindly hovering up coins in the virtual world and wondering what swag their profits can buy them. Ready Player One is a film that fixates upon the horrors of capitalism in the real world, but which also unironically presents “zeroing out” and losing all of ones resources within the game as a threat on par with death in the real world.

The same is true of its preoccupation with “gaming” as an identity asserted through knowledge and references more than innate skill and strength of character. The gaming world of Ready Player One is built on knowledge-based gate-keeping. Even the central quest narrative hinges on obscure trivia and in-jokes. The basic narrative framework of Ready Player One is that of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but with trivia rounds thrown in; as though Willy Wonka insisted that Charlie recite the ingredients of a nougat bar before handing him the keys to the Chocolate Factory.

That said, Ready Player One is the best advertisement campaign that The Iron Giant ever received.
Of course, it is also is the only advertisement campaign that The Iron Giant ever received

(The absurdity of this approach is perhaps best articulated in a conversation between the hero and the villain of the piece around the mid-point of the movie, in which Nolan Sorrento tries to convince Wade Watts that he would be a worthy ruler of the virtual realm. Wade tests Nolan on eighties movie trivia, including references to The Breakfast Club and Fast Times at Richmond High. “It’s a trap!” intones one aide of Wade’s line of questioning. Even when Nolan answers correctly, thanks to his aides in the next room, Wade responds, “A fan boy always recognises a hater.”)

Unsurprisingly, given everything that has unfolded in the years since the novel was published, this approach has not aged well. Ready Player One is a nominally inclusive story. Indeed, one of the main characters is a black lesbian who presents as a man in the online world. More than that, Penn and Spielberg have appreciably beefed up the role of Samantha, the book’s female lead. However, there is still something very uncomfortable in the climactic image of Wade Watts leading a violent a brutal gamers’ rebellion in order to assert control of a digital space. There are echoes of another infamous gamers’ revolt.

It’s about ethics in video game world building.

(It should be noted that it isn’t just gaming. There are also shades of broader internet and fandom revolts to be found in Ready Player One‘s tale of entitled consumer revolution, most of which occurred after the novel was published. Wade Watts seems like the kind of fan who would get bent out of shape by the treatment of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, if Spielberg could convince Disney to give him the rights to include it in this film. Ready Player One is a love letter to fan ownership, but it occasionally feels like an ode to fan entitlement.)

All of these elements feel awkward and ill-judged, but also feel like they could not be avoided. They are hardwired into the story’s DNA, a fundamental part of what this narrative is. Penn and Spielberg deserve a lot of credit for attempting to temper some of the source material’s worst impulses, and they accomplish a great deal. However, there is a sense that any adaptation of Ready Player One would be doomed by its own assertion of a distinct identity predicated on a complete lack of a distinct identity. This may simply be the best possible Ready Player One adaptation.

His cover is blown.

However, there is a flip side to all of this. Ready Player One is the most energised that Spielberg has been in years. Watching Ready Player One, it feels as though the veteran is trying to prove his stamina and his dynamism to a younger generation. It recalls the directorial work of Scorsese on The Wolf of Wall Street, albeit with much weaker material. Spielberg is directing with the energy of a man less than half his age, with the added experience of half a century of filmmaking behind him. The results are intoxicating.

Ready Player One is a sugar rush, overwhelming the senses and moving fast enough that the ground seldom has the opportunity to fall out from under it. Momentum is key. The camera whirls and dives, sweeping across impossible distances and weaving through impossible spaces. Of course, the camera is moving through a virtual world, with no limit imposed upon it other than Spielberg’s imagination, and the director embraces the limitless possibilities. In its best moments, Ready Player One is dynamic, dizzying and dazzling.

A killing joke.

There are extended sequences in Ready Player One that amount to waves of pixels being thrown against one another, a cacophony of chaos. There are nods and references that should be suffocating in their intensity and concentration, overwhelming the audience’s capacity to process what is unfolding on screen. However, Spielberg is always in control of the film, wrestling a formidable beast into submission. Even as Ready Player One moves at the speed of light, Spielberg is confidently guiding the camera and the action. Spielberg’s usually understated long-takes now span light years and cross galaxies.

In fact, Ready Player One works best as an archetypal Spielberg story, a coming of age adventure about quick-witted kids outwitting serious-minded grown-ups, a triumph of earnest wonder over cold cynicism. In the moment, Ready Player One is alluring and its zeal is infectious. In its strongest moments, when the audience are swept off their feet into something approaching graceful gravity-defying dance, the source material’s flaws are obscured and reduced to blurred outlines glimpsed only fleetingly.

A pop cultural giant.

The only problem is that sometimes Ready Player One has to slow down enough for its problems to catch up with it.

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