It's A Nerd's World In 'Ready Player One'
By Andrea Thompson
“Ready Player One” may be set in another bleak dystopia, but it's more of a nerd's world than ever thanks to the prevalence of virtual reality, which serves a gateway into a beautiful online world called the OASIS, where people are able to live vicariously through their avatars and find the freedom and abundance unavailable to them in the real world.
The creator of this online paradise, Halliday (Mark Rylance), is revered, even more so due to what he left behind after his death. Before he passed, Halliday hid a literal Easter Egg in the game, and whoever finds it will inherit his company, his fortune, and control of OASIS. But years have passed with no one even getting close to solving the first challenge, let alone finding the Egg, with those who remain devoted to the task dubbed “gunters.
One such devotee is the teenage Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, aka the young Cyclops from the new “X-Men” movies), who lives in an impoverished trailer park in Columbus, Ohio with his estranged aunt Alice (Susan Lynch) and the current loser she happens to be dating. Given his depressing surroundings, you can't exactly blame him for spending practically all his time in the OASIS, especially when we have a nerd god of our own in the form of director Steven Spielberg to bring it all to us in its breathtaking glory.
A movie that takes place almost entirely in the online world is bound to have its share of nerdy shout-outs, but “Ready Player One” is one giant Easter Egg in itself. It's not only brimming with geek culture, nerdom practically provides the oxygen everyone breathes, with the online avatars and all their beloved fandom coming off as every bit as alive as their real world counterparts, sometimes more so. So many movies only view the art of creating as an ugly process wherein a tortured male genius treats everyone badly before he is able to produce a piece of art that justifies all the terrible things that came before. But “Ready Player One” fully embraces the joy and the love that so often goes into it. After all, it's not only Spielberg's very real skills and signature style that account for his wide, rock-solid fanbase. It's also the way he's able to share his love for what he does with his audience without coming off as condescending or maudlin.
The film's villain is also unsettling, mainly because he feels a bit too familiar in the light of today's very real battle to keep the Internet weird and open. Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is the CEO of a multinational corporation who seeks to take control of OASIS and essentially remake it in his own image by pumping it full of things like boatloads of ads and tiered memberships. His loyalty centers are basically internment camps which function to keep its residents in debt and enslaved to do the company's bidding. He's so out of touch with nerd culture he keeps his password written on a note and pasted onto his VR station, a simple act which got one of the biggest laughs at the screening I attended. Small wonder that Wade is able to see right through Sorrento and refuses to work with him despite the many perks he offers. TJ Miller's role as Sorrento's online sidekick also feels far too relevant given the various allegations against him. (Why is this guy still getting work?)
However, “Ready Player One” falls into some of the traps of online world it depicts, and indeed the movie itself warns about. As much as it tries to say that real life should always take precedence over our online one, it doesn't seem to care much about life outside of OASIS. It makes sense that the movie would have to leave some the book's many, many details out, and even take a few different routes, but Wade's school isn't even shown, nor are the politics of the day. He goes straight from his trailer to his VR station, and that's it. Brief mentions are made of the conflicts that birthed this world, but just barely.
Oh, and then there's the women. There's some real effort to give them something to do, and the movie mostly does a pretty good job, with Lena Waithe being the greatest beneficiary. But their main role still seems to be making sacrifices for the male hero. Waithe sacrifices her best avatar. And his love interest, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”), is just as competent a gamer as Wade,with a far more interesting backstory, but quickly concludes Wade must be the one to win the contest. She allows herself to be taken prisoner by Sorrento's minions to give him more time to get away, and Wade even forcibly removes her from the game in order to save her. Halliday also has a backstory involving a woman he never got over and who ended up marrying his best friend Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), but none of her achievements, or the very large role she played in OASIS, are mentioned. Her story revolves around Halliday's. Morrow is revealed to be the central relationship of Halliday's life, with its dissolution being his biggest regret.
In the hands of any other director, the flaws of “Ready Player One,” both in the source material and in the film itself, would overwhelm it. The movie would merely be the unwitting embodiment of its villain: just another chance to cash in on nerd culture. There are also numerous chances for satire and horror lingering just out of reach, with even the poorest having access to video game equipment that allows the escape we are more and more desperately searching for. But Spielberg chooses to embrace a more optimistic approach, and it's a change that's both refreshing and engaging in a way few directors could pull off.