Ready Player One ★★

As an aesthetic and formal exercise its merits are undeniable. The CGI is beautifully realised, with Spielberg operating on a simply spectacular formal level; most notably in the reality blurring cross-cutting. This technique and the subtlest details in or implications of the design (e.g. Wade wears and removes his human “skin” within the OASIS, Artemis bears Samantha’s birthmark as a smear of blood in the final act) gesture toward an unspoken idea in the film’s world: there is no binary, no “real” world that is real over against another. A Manichean approach to what is proves false, as one senses motions toward a shared realism in which distinct ontological modes coalesce and inform the other. This is, of course, clearest in the denouement when Halliday appears to now live as digital human, less a ghost in the machine and more a man of body-code.

This subtext or counter-reading forms a genuine interpretive possibility, but it is apparent that the film is consciously opposed to non-traditional and radically novel possibilities. The content makes this clear, for just as Neil Bahadur makes the claim that PTA’s Phantom Thread is “merely of the present” in relation to the innovation of its historical influences, it seems quite apt to assert that Ready Player One is merely of the past. As edifice it is a monument to all that is prologue, denominating it in its entirety a positive value: insipid masculinities, disaster capitalism, social stratification and class struggle, and humanism all becoming explicit goods. Dialectics makes it clear that negation appear latent within this trove of reactionary-isms, but counter-interpretation only goes so far when the film finds joy in regression; the truth of nihilism as such.

It is, in this sense, hard not to recall Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and the basis his form has laid as a vehicle for narrative cinema. The precision of Spielberg’s cross-cutting—the Griffithian innovation par excellence—is none too surprising when one considers that the values on display in Ready Player One almost befit the Victorian era Griifith so adored. The formal assurance that Spielberg brings has then a double function, for inasmuch as it makes the film operate as the style intended, it also draws out the absurdity of the film’s narrative ellipses. The drama and developments made in between the discoveries of the second and third keys render this visible: the tragedy of mass murder goes forgotten, and in and out of game events adding up to hours or days transpire in the space of minutes (e.g. Aech travelling to Columbus from somewhere after receiving a message from Samantha about the IOI minutes before; IOI finding the location of the third even though the second had just been cracked). The double function concludes in reckoning with the fact that this astute formal assurance exists only to mark utterly tedious stupidity in the development of plot. Worse still, it underlines and broadens accusations of "mere pastness", for the film in its most technical advancements finds all of its excitement generated in editing decisions perfected 103 years ago—in a work of nostalgia-laden, race-baiting propaganda no less.

Lastly, in the films of Spielberg’s late period, questions regarding the political life of America have taken on an overt and renewed importance. Yet it appears to be here in Ready Player One that political matters come to the forefront in a way that they have not throughout this period. As vision of dystopia the film is terrifying in how it imagines the absolute evacuation of class consciousness from the American citizenry: debtors’ prisons are an acceptable practice, armed divisions of private corporations go unquestioned, the only dream is one of wealth aspiration and escape, poverty is more than ever a justifiable fact, and wealth redistribution unthought. It should be a matter of deep concern and trepidation that the film's response to each of these matters is humour or silence: the OASIS is never interrogated as a mode of biopolitical pacification, while CEOs and their lackeys are mass murderers and slavers given the most comedic beats.

To come full circle, while a deliberation over what is real motivates the film, it should do little but to underscore Read Player One's cynicism and reactionary function. What does it mean for an audience to be asked to accept that reality is the only place one could “get a decent meal” when it seems almost impossible that anyone in this America could even afford food? In this very late capitalist hell—wherein the greatest crooks, murderers, and villains actively redeemed as they are moved by the tears of a fanboy made trillionaire; and cinematic form is an excuse to “go backwards really really fast” in a manner wholly commensurate with the content at hand and the content of a century ago—the only conclusion possible should be one that determines that what is needed is an entirely different future.

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