Ready Player One ★★★★½

Short take: Spielberg proves himself once again a master of both sci-fi fantasy and popcorn filmmaking, delivering a compelling universe full of possibilities and questions about where we are and where we're going, wrapped in a fun and flashy spectacle.

A quick look through the folks I'm following on letterboxd shows that a lot of them seem to be whiffing on this one. Obviously taste is individual but there seems to be a damning with faint praise for the experience, effects or improving on the source material without really grappling with what Spielberg is doing here. There is a real quickness to dismiss this movie out-of-hand for being "like watching someone else play a video game" or "not going far enough with the social criticism" or "overly nostalgic." I frankly find all those criticisms untenable (except maybe the first, simply due to the fact that we are literally watching someone else play a video game).

The movie brings viewers into a situation that inherently feels socially dangerous. As we crane down the stacks in that initial introductory shot of Wade descending from his home we see in every window a real person, blinded from reality by their VR blindfold, carrying out some foolish charade. It looks silly and evokes laughter, not in a broad, hateful way but because in 2018 we are close enough to this reality that we recognize it a little already. It hasn't gone this far yet but that's part of the point. When Wade interacts with his parents "in real life," the interaction is actually about the game world. None of the dismissive, parental advice like "you're gonna rot your brain out, son" or whatever -- no, they are all plugged into the same virtual world and are basically equal players, even more isolated from one another by fighting for their little bits of reality (like the gaming gloves).

Personally, I found the dystopian world of Ready Player One to be one of the more frightening depictions of the future I've ever seen on-screen if only because it doesn't seem completely far-fetched. It likely will not look exactly this unified, but when you consider the virtual connectivity something like Facebook or Twitter have over us and the curating, manicured, digital presences (likes, dislikes, frustrations, animosities, etc.) being maintained via a corporately-held yet democratically-open platform, none of the OASIS feels that outlandish. When you also look at the growth of cryptocurrencies and recent gaming controversies like EA Games' "loot box" controversy surrounding the Star Wars: Battlefront game, the idea of a digital universe with its own cash economy also doesn't feel so outlandish.

It's no question that current trends in popular culture have become enamored with feeding and fueling personal cultural nostalgia. There are all kinds of reasons for this but I personally think much of it has to do with finding shared focal points of meaning and significance in an increasingly individualized and curated world. Where as previous generations might have found these shared focal points around religion, family, nation or ethnic/social heritage, in the rush to abolish all these distinctions we have also left a void. What is left, in many ways, are the shared bits of pop culture. Now, this culture tends to group itself within the 70s-90s at the moment due to age demographics for one thing, but I also think it is due to it being a a time when popular culture was more clearly and universally shared. In a world of franchised hits built on existing cultural properties, it is next to impossible to imagine an E.T. or Back to the Future emerging today. Not only in terms of their entertainment quality, modest budgets and focused storytelling, but also in terms of sustained cultural events that brings people together from all kinds of varying experiences to share in (and generally find mutual enjoyment in) an entertainment experience.

This is an important context to realize when seeing just how Ready Player One deals with pop cultural nostalgia. James Halliday is the designer of The OASIS and the overseer of the rules of his world. Despite it having some open form aspects to it, in terms of the contest for the easter egg keys, the clues are built around the very eccentric personal design choices of its creator/designer. An intricate and detailed knowledge of the creator (and a right interpretation of his motives and emphases) are crucial to success. In some of the most fascinating sequences in the film, Parzival goes into the Halliday museum to search out moments from his life for clues that might lead to unlocking the next quests. The implication is that Halliday has curated moments, games, movies and other cultural ephemera from his life to be studied and explored by anyone with interest.

The key emotional function of nostalgia is longing. It's a longing for something felt to be lost and/or missing from the current situation -- whether true or imagined. What's fascinating here is that Halliday's life and interests have become de facto nostalgia -- but for whom? Anyone who is chasing the keys in Halliday's quest are not nostalgic. They have no emotional connection to the 1970s and 80s being displayed. They view it all as merely functional, part of the "rules of the game." Wade has a few vintage artifacts we see in his home, but they only hold meaning for him through the experience of Halliday. It's not beyond possibility that Wade sees the 80s as a pristine time to be alive, but we get no indication of that from anything he says or does apart from maybe the DeLorean car he races with.

It seems to me the movie functions as a critique of nostalgia as a guiding emotion. We all long for something of the innocence of childhood but there is a separation that we maintain between then and now. Part of that separation is the lack of awareness we had then. As a kind, were we walking around, taking in every car, every building, every bit of trash from Doritos bags to Pepsi cans and thinking, "Wow--this is what 1982 looks like?" No, we just lived it. Part of what nostalgia grants us is a past world with current awareness of its temporal nature--all the while we miss the reality of the present moment by pining for the past. Nostalgia functions just as the OASIS does. It might be fine in moments to keep us cognizant of the present but it's terrible as a pattern of living because it keeps us locked in a fictional past.

It's interesting having just watched Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (Carl Reiner, 1982) because both of these films are intertextual films that are both interacting with, reinterpreting and pulling new meaning from existing pop cultural iconography and narrative. Reiner's film is more a spoof of film noir tropes than anything else, but it is also perfectly manicured in its attempt to integrate 1980s Steve Martin with 1940s Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Burt Lancaster and the rest. It works as an unintentional double feature.

In Ready Player One, the selling point may initially seem to be the iconography, but what's interesting is how the iconography is utilized by the characters. Again, functionality is central. The Holy Hand Grenade and the Zemeckis Cube are not just the cool artifacts they first appeared to be in the store early on -- it turns out they are very helpful devices that once used are gone forever in the advancement of the hero or the sustaining of his game life. In this way, the sacrifice of The Iron Giant becomes not just a pop cultural flashpoint we can rally behind as viewers, but a function that directly aids in the narrative advancement of the characters. It also functions for us as a statement about the functional nature of pop culture to move us forward and then, having served its purpose, can be disposed of and destroyed.

Not everything should be remembered and clung to. As fascinating the Halliday Museum may be in one sense, it is sad in another sense. It speaks of a life unfulfilled, with major notes of pain and regret and a lingering desire to live an insular life almost completely virtually realized. In that way it actually becomes a interesting portrait of an artist and the way art is not only an internal expression but an attempt to live in an alternate world free from the normal confines of reality.

I believe Spielberg sees himself in Halliday's character, treating him in many ways as an intriguing and tragic figure, unable to fully grapple with the implications of his creation and the lasting impact and legacy of his own work. Spielberg knows part of the monster of contemporary blockbuster cinema is his own doing (both the beauty and tragedy of it) -- he had an uncanny knack for creating personal films that resonated deeply with masses of people and were able to do it while maintaining rigorous filmmaking fundamentals built upon his love of the masters mixed with his own childhood preoccupations.

I remember when A.I.: Artificial Intelligence came out and many critics seemed to be rather dismissive of it for not being exactly what they wanted out of a Kubrick movie or a Spielberg movie. Their petty criticisms have mostly been forgotten now (nearly 20 years later) as many of those same people see A.I. as a masterpiece for its technical proficiency mixed with its rich emotional complexity. It may be too early to bestow that honor on Ready Player One just yet but I won't be surprised if we end up giving this a critical re-appraisal 10 or more years later as a remarkable technical achievement and an intensely personal bit of self-examination from THE big budget master filmmaker of the blockbuster generation. We always bemoan blockbuster cinema for lacking ideas and yet we always seem to take for granted that Spielberg's films always do.

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