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Ready Player One

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It becomes impossible to ignore what a cynical exercise Ready Player One is when you realise the characters’ only investment in all the pop culture ephemera the film is steeped in is economic. They don’t actually like this stuff, and if they do, it’s for the shallowest and most mercenary of reasons: possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of ’80s (and ’90s, and even ’70s – the film spreads a wide net) nerd culture might help them solve the puzzle left behind by reclusive genius game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance) after his death and win All the Money in the World.

Not that there’s much of a world left. In Ready Player One‘s dark near future of 2045, overpopulation and rolling energy crises have led to widespread poverty and everyone spends the overwhelmng bulk of their time plugged into the OASIS, the vast virtual reality universe that Halliday invented, where they can look however they want to look and do whatever they want to do. In practice, this results in countless folks wearing avatars that resemble pop culture icons (everyone from Batman to Robocop to Freddie Krueger to frickin’ Battletoads gets a cameo) and blowing the crap out of each other on endless first person shooter battle maps, because apparently that’s what you do when the world outside your window is all but on fire (it might sound satirical – it’s not. The film lacks the cojones to grapple with the implications of its base assumptions).

Onto this garish stage strides Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an orphan living with his aunt in the “stacks” (vertical trailer parks, a nice visual conceit) of Columbus, Ohio. Wade is a “Gunter” – Easter egg hunter – determined to solve the puzzles Halliday left behind and win All of the Stuff. To do so, he needs to find three magic keys hidden in OASIS, and to do that he needs to immerse himself in the pop culture of Halliday’s youth – and so does everybody else, because winning Basically Everything is a hell of a motivator when you’re living in a trailer stacked on top of half a dozen other trailers and eating drone-delivered Pizza Hut for every meal.

What this means in effect is that, from beyond the grave no less, Halliday has engineered a world where everyone is forced to obsess over stuff he likes – not because they like it, but because there’s a material prize to be earned. Think about it – if someone told you they’d give you a billion dollars if you learned to recite The Brothers Karamazov in Spanish by God you’d give it a red hot go, whether you cared for Dostoevsky, or Spanish, or even reading, or not.

There’s a scene in the film where Wade, who goes by the online handle Parzival, has a little ad hoc trivia contest with fellow Gunter and love interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, once again proving she’s better than the material she’s saddled with – see also The Limehouse Golem and Me, Earl and the Dying Girl) and they rattle off factoids about Halliday’s pop culture faves – he digs the video to A-Ha’s “Take on Me”, apparently. It’s the kind of posturing you’ll find in any online comment thread (and we’ve all done it at one time or another) and it’s the most basic, shallow level of cultural engagement possible. It’s trivia, the rote ability to rattle off factoids, and when you get down to it, no more impressive than being able to memorise your times tables.

Ready Player One almost uniformly operates at that level, only occasionally – and possibly accidentally – delving deeper. It’s a film packed with pop culture symbols: Art3mis at one time blazes away with an Aliens pulse rifle, Parzival/Wade dresses his avatar as Buckaroo Banzai and drives a Back to the Future DeLorean, at one point a Gundam fights MechaGodzilla, at another the frickin’ Glaive from Krull gets deployed. But the film refuses to interrogate why these things might be important to the characters, and by extension to us – what these symbols actually mean, apart from their role in Halliday’s own psyche and high stakes game. Why is a populace suffering under deprivation and oppression so wrapped up in the cultural minutiae of the past?

The obvious answer is because the world is screwed and living inside a Lotus-Eater Machine is a damn sight better than facing that particular grim reality, but the script, credited to Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, on whose novel the film is based, is careful to tiptoe around that conclusion, except with some lip service in the denouement. Tellingly, the quest in Ready Player One is not to save the world – by the time the credits roll, nothing has been done about the terrible shape the joint is in – but to seize the means by which the state of the world can be ignored. A more cynical take on the material might have spun satirical gold out of that; legendary director Steven Spielberg (The Terminal, 1941) refuses to take that route.

This may be the worst film of Spielberg’s career. At best it’s bottom five, and even though the quality occasionally jumps up a notch or two when the Old Master deploys a flourish here and there, it feels like he’s asleep at the wheel, completely unengaged by the material he’s working with. It is, by and large, terribly orchestrated noise and spectacle,  particularly the big action scenes, which consist of masses of digital creations charging across the screen at each other with no grace or visual poetry. The film is, when you get down to it, just plain ugly. It’s overwhelmed by its need to cram in as many pop culture cameos and visual puns as possible into every frame, sacrificing composition and flow to do so.

In an admirable display of modesty, the ‘Berg refuses to put too many pieces from his own back catalogue on the board, aside from a couple references to Back to the Future, which he produced – Indiana Jones never swings by on a digital whip, E.T. never waddles onto a battlefield to heal a downed HALO Spartan. He does, however, tip the hat to his old friend Stanley Kubrick in the film’s best sequence, when Wade and his fellow Gunters must navigate the Overlook Hotel from The Shining in their quest. It’s a bravura bit of business, playful and funny, and it’s also the one time when both the characters’ and the audience’s knowledge of pop culture has any stakes, with Spielberg using the viewers’ assumed knowledge of Stanley’s old horror movie to crank up the tension, while punishing the one character who hasn’t seen the movie with all the horrors the hotel contains.

It’s the one point where the film really soars, but in context it only serves to illustrate how badly the misshapen thing stumbles elsewhere. Ready Player One is appallingly written, beginning with a massive, voice-over-driven info-dump from Wade before settling into episodic, stakes-free action. For all that there are numerous pitched battles and frantic chases, they mostly happen in the digital realm and at the end of the day you’re just watching pixels collide with no sense of cost or sacrifice (even in the world of the film the cost of digital death is just losing all your loot – too bad, how sad).

Things do fare a little better in the real world, were it not for the fact that the film can’t decide whether the antagonist, ruthless corporate suit Noah Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, and thank Christ for him), is a credible threat or a Scooby Doo villain. Mendo, to his credit, does his best to accommodate both demands, at one point sending drones to blow up Wade’s family (a cost Wade bears nobly because, well, he doesn’t actually like them), at others gloating cartoonishly or visibly lamenting that, yes, he probably would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling kids.

Mendo’s company Innovative Online Industries (IOI) wants to introduce tiered pricing, pay-to-play, targeted advertising and all that stuff to the OASIS, which the film notes is a Bad Thing – a bold claim for a movie that will presumably be available in both regular and Gold Class, and is straining at the seams with licensed IP and product placement. To that end, he employs an army of paid Gunters called Sixers to scour the OASIS for clues. This is also positioned as a Bad Thing, which essentially means the film is preferencing the gig economy over regular employment (to be fair, IOI are in fact proper evil at times, but hey – that’s life under late capitalism). At no point is a connection made between this and net neutrality.

This is indicative of the principal crime of which Ready Player One is guilty – it’s absolute refusal to question either itself or the pop culture landscape it freely pillages for imagery. It is, to steal a phrase, Memberberries the Movie, content merely to evince a Pavlovian response from the audience by firing familiar brands into their faces at a thousand logos a second in order to get the nostalgia glands producing saliva. It doesn’t care what these things mean, and it certainly doesn’t care what they mean to you – their presence in the film is just bait, and nothing more. The film thinks you’re dumb, even going so far as to verbally underline the occasional bit of iconography you may not have clicked with, as when one character tells Wade that Art3mis is riding Kaneda’s bike from Akira. The idea that this film, whose whole schtick is to drown the audience in pop references, is so smug as to think the audience might not be smart enough to get those same references is actually offensive. It’s insulting.

But that’s the state of play. That three-decade-wide net, filled with thousands of recognisable icons and symbols, is spread for one reason, and one reason alone: to catch as many fish as possible.

You’re the fish in this analogy, by the way. Swim the fuck away from Ready Player One.