Ready Player One

Presentism is a common enough problem in science fiction, especially where popular culture is concerned; just look at the Star Trek franchise(s), where the characters' favorite cultural products—Sherlock Holmes, hardboiled detective fiction, Beastie Boys songs—are instantly recognizable by the typical Star Trek viewer. My beef with Ready Player One isn't the assumption that the people of 2045 would have the same nostalgia for Back to the Future and Atari 2600 games as the people of 2018. There are plenty of generic sci-fi/fantasy creatures strewn amongst the Street Fighters and Ninja Turtles, and it's easy to pretend that these anonymous figures are actually the pop-culture sensations of the 2040s or '30s.

The problem with Ready Player One is rather how little thought has been given to its future world, with its virtual-reality MMORPG that has apparently displaced everything else to become the global pastime. "Parzival"'s belabored voiceover informs us, with self-abasing incredulity, that his best friend is an online avatar for someone he's never actually met in the "real" world—something I'd guess isn't all that unheard of here in 2018, and should hardly merit comment in a society where people spend most of their waking lives in VR gear. When said best friend warns Parzival that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl he's virtually crushing on could actually be some dude in a basement, this is presented as a cutting insight and not the sort of wiseass observation people have been making since the dawn of online communication.

Then there's the nature of the online space itself. "OASIS" is a global phenomenon that cuts across all demographics in a way today's video game makers can only dream about; it is also, we are repeatedly told, the product of an utterly unique individual whose vision must be protected, at the risk of unsimulated perma-death, from the sinister megacorporation that just wants to squeeze it for cash. So why does it resemble nothing but a more immersive amalgam of contemporary AAA video games, in which endless conflict and competition are the motors for all other interaction? Even the most social of the film's virtual spaces—a king-sized nightclub, drenched in neon of course—is just the staging area for what's essentially a stylized dance-off.

The self-sabotaging nature of this narrow conception of gaming is most evident when the protagonists' avatars enter a dead-on recreation of a seminal '80s movie. In the original novel, the movie was Blade Runner, which might've been too similar to the dystopia of Ready Player One to make much impact on the screen. In any case, even Steven Spielberg couldn't wrangle the necessary permissions, so his film substitutes a different point of reference that's just as iconic but far more incongruous in this context. Ideally, this would've generated the same frission as the dream house at the end of A.I., a space imbued with similar uncanniness. Alas, Spielberg can't help himself: the façade is dropped in short order and the film adds its own ridiculous ornamentation to bring this eerie spectacle in line with the one-note approach outlined above, which is about as eerie as a sledgehammer to the head—or an axe wielded by a giant naked zombie.

This is a movie almost pathologically afraid to unsettle, to the extent that likening it to a video game would be unfair to the latter—even Infocom titles from the Paleolithic Age of gaming were more willing to face up to the implications of their own narratives. This is a movie in which corporations use indentured servants while most Americans live in slums, yet the police immediately side with a resident of the latter over a billionaire CEO; a movie in which said billionaire CEO is vanquished by the hero on behalf of another billionaire CEO; a movie in which the victorious hero decrees that the masses shall spend two days a week deprived of their main outlet, presumably so they can better appreciate their cramped, jury-rigged trailer homes while he relaxes in a spacious apartment with his (flesh-and-blood) Manic Pixie Dream Girl. For something that closes with an admonition to spend more time in the real world, it's all incredibly parochial, the kind of thing that might've been produced by someone convinced loot boxes are one of the gravest issues we face today. The grimmer aspects of Ready Player One's 2045 are depressingly plausible from our vantage point in 2018, and it's all the more depressing it has nothing to say about them except "get your kicks where you find 'em."