CAST: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance
DIRECTED BY: Steven Spielberg
WRITTEN BY: Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (from Ernest Cline’s novel)
RUNNING TIME: 140 minutes
CYBERKITSCH: A REVIEW OF READY PLAYER ONE (2018) SANS SPOILERS
by Jim Wallace
“We live in our fantasies and endure our realities.” — Robert Anton Wilson
Only Steven Spielberg would make cyberpunk cinema schmaltzy; only Steven Spielberg would want to. His newest movie, Ready Player One (2018), is Willy Wonka cross-bred with William Gibson, and the offspring is a sterile mule carrying cartoonish characters, eye-straining CGI effects, and multitudinous retro pop culture references.
Based upon Ernest Cline’s best-selling 2011 novel, Ready Player One takes place in a year 2045 in which a virtual-reality utopia provides escape from a real-world dystopia of worsening economic, energy, and ecological crises. The OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) is “a whole virtual universe” in which one “can do anything, be anyone, without going anywhere at all.” It functions as both a MMORPG (“massively multiplayer online role-playing game”)—its original purpose—and a virtual society with the world’s most stable currency.
So it’s used for work and play and is “the world’s most important economic resource.” And it was created by James Halliday, an on-the-autism-spectrum video game designer who preferred the fantasy worlds of role-playing games, video games, and imaginative fiction to the real world. (In fact, the OASIS is supersaturated with pop culture elements, especially from the 1980s.) Before he died, Halliday hid an Easter egg within the OASIS and left a video to publicly announce that the first gamer to find his egg “will inherit half-a-trillion dollars and total control of the OASIS.”
(“Oompa Loompa, do-ba-dee-doo, I’ve got a perfect puzzle for you.”)
The cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction combines “low life and high tech”; and the protagonist, 20-year-old Wade Watts, resides in a Columbus, Ohio slum in which mobile homes are stacked in scaffoldings. One of the generation of “Missing Millions” who live more in virtual reality than in the real world, he’s an orphan with an alliterative birth name like a Stan Lee character and the OASIS avatar name of “Parzival.” Percival is one of the Arthurian knights who finds the Holy Grail, and Wade has dedicated his life to finding James Halliday’s Easter egg.
His primary antagonist, also obsessed with finding Halliday’s Easter egg, is Nolan Sorrento, the CEO of IOI (Innovative Online Industries), a mega-corporation that manufactures virtual reality equipment for accessing the OASIS and has an indentured servitude program for those who fail to pay their debts. He’s willing to do anything, including ordering and committing murder in the real world, to win the “war for control of the future.” Thus Wade’s quest leads him to join (eye roll, please) “the rebellion” against IOI.
So, as good SF does, Ready Player One imagines the human consequences of an imaginary technology (the OASIS) and is a caricature of and extrapolation from the modern world. (It deals with current concerns about the economy and the Web, especially Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook.) But it missed the obvious opportunity to brilliantly satirize this world. And it answers cyberpunk’s philosophical questions, “What is real?” and “What does it mean to be human?,” with syrupy, simplistic messages that “reality is the only thing that’s real” and about “connecting with someone, connecting with the world.”
Ironically for a cautionary tale about neglecting and escaping the real world for fantasy ones, Ready Player One doesn’t have much of an emotional core. Tye Sheridan’s hapless nerd Wade Watts isn’t as likeable and sympathetic as Tobey Maguire’s hapless nerd Peter Parker in the original Spider-Man (2002), and his interactions with the other “High Five” rebels feel rather flat. His internal journey of learning to connect with the real world and its people, a journey his idol James Halliday regretted not undertaking, just doesn’t feel genuine.
And despite his external quest having all the elements of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” monomyth, the story has no feeling of mythic weight as do the “Star Wars” and “Matrix” movies. Instead, it’s as light and fluffy and sickly-sweet as cotton candy. (In fact, its Category 5 hurricane of CGI effects creates the same feelings of sensory overload and nausea that eating far too much candy in one sitting does.) With its premise, budget, and director, Ready Player One had the potential to be one of the greatest SF movies of all time. Instead, it’s a mediocre one.