Pop Goes Culture
Warning: This review reveals details of the film’s plot, including the predictable ending.
Ernest Cline’s novel, Ready Player One, has been derided by some for being a pop culture listicle grafted onto a Roald Dahl plot. And not a mass of stuff in the David Foster Wallace mould, but Wallace for idiots, for nerds, for the kind of people whose book shelves are stocked solely with Tolkien and Star Trek novels, though not the Discovery ones – no one’s really interested in those.
Every pop cultural artefact of the last 40 years got a mention in Cline’s furious act of word masturbation. Atop the mountain of memories (one can read “the stacks”, the home of Wade, the story’s hero, as a metaphor for the book’s own architecture) was the work of Steven Spielberg – the man who began the blockbuster cycle with Jaws in 1975, and inadvertently precipitated the full-scale infantilisation of film culture (despite latter attempts at moving toward respectable adult territory), with filmmakers and other creatives – game designers, novelists, TV producers, all following his lead, though without his artistry or aptitude for finding the humanity in high concept scenarios.
Perhaps it was inevitable, then, with Spielberg no longer the box office titan of old, so nostalgic for his own success, that when it came to finding someone to helm the movie adaptation – a film that would appropriate the era he was an instrumental part of, the now greying beard would be first choice. Cline’s testicles must have exploded when the deal was done. His ultimate valentine led to a date with the filmmaker of his dreams.
The rest of the world wondered if Spielberg, who hasn’t made a successful blockbuster of this type for 25 years, could find a way to humanise (and dramatise) the novel’s virtual playground and characters built from their knowledge of childhood toss. Not their childhood, you understand – these are kids from the 2040s, obsessed with the obsession of Oasis creator James Halliday (whimsically rendered by Mark Rylance as Gene Wilder in his dotage). It’s a crucial point, central to the story’s core conceit, that the film doesn’t bother to make, despite a fuck load of frontloaded expository voiceover, but never mind – just accept that in a world when anyone can be anything and have anything, they choose the archaic pop culture of the distant past – the equivalent of today’s kids opting to create game characters based on 1940’s film and TV staples.
In the event, Spielberg’s made a very odd movie indeed – the most colourful dystopia ever made. Ready Player One: The Movie, is simultaneously a critique and celebration of the unreal; a film that tells us that too much disconnect from our monotonous lives is an unhealthy thing; a false consciousness that makes us both suggestible, ripe for exploitation, and ditched from life’s simple pleasures like fucking and breathing fresh air; while relishing the possibilities afforded by mo-cap technology to promote a limitless cinematic cornucopia, in which all life’s shackles – identity, social status, prosperity or lack thereof, are irrelevant. The Oasis is a great leveller, though Spielberg being an old man on a quest to get a nuclear family friendly rating, doesn’t have the guts to push it all the way. No heteronormative online relationship found gay in the real world here; no attractive female avatar found to be controlled by a motor neurone afflicted sixty-two year old man with a worm of drool hanging from his lower lip. Would a young filmmaker be so cowed?
Instead, the Great Beard utilises the experience of computer animated filmmaking honed on Tintin and The BFG, to create an eye popping world of virtual camera swoops and characters with cartoon faces. It’s a universe, like today’s internet, that must be kept free of corporate control, a bottom-up shared experience, the people’s playground – but Spielberg and screenwriter Zak Penn can’t quite decide how free we should be to get lost in this brave new world.
The film settles on a fudge – a two day a week switch off, leaving couples time to grope. There’s no mention of what singletons and those with locked in syndrome should do during those long Tuesdays and Thursdays, but this is a Spielberg blockbuster – it’s made for those who imagine themselves to be outsiders while being, by every measurable yardstick, part of humanity’s mainstream.
If the movie can’t decide whether to kiss or kill the technology it’s selling as spectacle, then at least it’s settled on the kind of film it’s aiming to reconstruct (no, not The Shining – though that’s the movie’s best sequence). Spielberg knows that much of the target audience miss the sentimental, oft romantic, emotionally manipulative blockbusters of yore, so between FX reels attempts to give us just that, making Ready Player One a fantasy about rejecting fantasy that’s built on movie fantasy clichés.
The kids at the heart of the story naturally fall in love in the real world, buoyed by Alan Silvestri’s old fashioned score. The evil adult corporate villain who hates pop culture is brought to book (rather than being killed by nerds quoting movie lines as would have been perfect), the awkward Wonka-like creator of this fantasy realm has a posthumous epiphany in which he decides, having handed over the chocolate factory – sorry, virtual kingdom, that reality’s “the only place you can get a decent meal”, and our hero learns that a real world relationship is the best form of escapism, though the half trillion dollars in game company stock he’s won will undoubtedly help. We’re left with one empty fantasy, a world of unlimited possibilities, replaced with another – Tye Sheridan’s gamer getting rich and getting the girl (or boy if you identify with Olivia Cooke’s character – despite her being referred to as “the girl”).
Superficially, this works well enough. Spielberg’s film has pace, energy and movement; enough to propel you along, provided you’re not minded to think about what this stylised roll call of intellectual property amounts to.
Ontologically, Ready Player One works on its own terms – it’s a bridge between the era it invokes and today’s obsession with ephemera and online networks. But the Spielberg referenced by Cline might have found his older self’s movie cold and lacking the warm and engaging characters that the 70’s and 80’s filmmaker always pushed front and centre.
Perhaps no man, pandering to the audience the novel beats off, could have done more with the material, but that doesn’t mean we can’t lament the satirical road not taken, nor wish the film had fallen to someone prepared to push the story’s cautionary potential all the way. They might have found a more sympathetic audience than they imagined.