Ready Player One

"I hate myself

I hate myself

I hate myself

For loving you"

The text people are searching for to decode this bizarre film is Hiroki Azuma's critical theory book Otaku: Japan's Database Animals. I first heard of the book through McKenzie Wark, who, following Azuma, posited that Japan had begun grappling with post-modernity several decades earlier than the rest of the world. This I think is true, because what began in Japan can be seen emerging in the United States today.

In his book, Azuma uses the otaku phenomenon to theorize a psychic response to post-modernity's confusions. The first stage of post-modernity is a breakdown of grand narratives, such as those provided by religion, politics, and nationhood. Otaku cope with this traumatic disappearance by substituting the grand narratives of various animé and manga franchises, which accrue somewhat sacred status to devotees. Yet as the world itself becomes more post-modern, later consumers no longer trouble themselves with latching onto ersatz grand narratives. The delight of encountering beloved characters in diverse contexts is enough for the pleasure-seeking otaku. In this framework, characters (and their desirable characteristics) are just simulations emitted from the prime source behind all pop culture: the database. Artists and authors become little more than sorcerers, summoning up variations on familiar characteristics provided by the database.

It's shockingly easy to transpose Azuma's theories onto READY PLAYER ONE. The opening narration even tells us that its 2045 is a time when people have given up solving real-world problems, retreating into virtual reality instead. Spielberg begins by whirling his camera around a slum where people can be seen onanistically enjoying VR through their windows. Without a doubt, we are witnessing a dystopia. A stovetop burns as an absent-minded mother fends off her fretful son; grungy living rooms decay around solitary gamers; and Wade Watts, our protagonist, suffers the wrath of his aunt's abusive boyfriend when he tries to address their shared poverty.

Some of what we're shown is intended as a dark joke. In dismissing him as an overgrown child, many people neglect to note Spielberg's sometimes wicked sense of humor. But there can be no mistaking the squalor of READY PLAYER ONE's America. These people are desperate for escapism because life is no longer worth living. In its place is an immersive gamespace where every beloved superhero, alien, and sci-fi monster awaits your arrival. Why suffer such deprivation when private enterprise offers a bounty of fantastical distractions? An oasis, after all, means refuge from the harsh outside world.

Spielberg navigates us through the Oasis with a swooping camera most reminiscent of his zero-gravity TINTIN film. The logistics of this computerized wonderworld are impossibly complex, and Watts' narration does little to make sense of it. For a 140-minute film, much of READY PLAYER ONE glides by in a blur, like video game cutscenes sped up fivefold. It's so dense with visual over-stimulation that spatial unity can barely be grasped, much less internalized. It's Spielberg's most post-cinematic film yet, even as he retains the formal skill to wring excitement out of sequences that could have come straight from a video game. At 71 years old, he has still not lost his intuitive understanding of the affects his viewers know best. Except this time, rather than giving us the heavenly tranquility of suburbia, he alternates between mass poverty and a multi-media melange of fanboy favorites. In 2018, it seems we truly cannot go home again.

Far from a totalizing fantasy, READY PLAYER ONE offers up plenty strange moments of autocritique. Wade Watts "falls in love" with a girl avatar he's only ever seen in the Oasis, which gives his digital best friend the opportunity for some chummy gay panic jokes. "Dude, what if this hot girl image is just an illusion, and it's really some ugly guy living in his mom's basement?" There will later be an ironic twist to this secret identity speculation, but it's indicative of an immaturity that afflicts almost all the film's characters. Even James Halliday, the VR auteur/entrepeneur who gifted Oasis to the world, is gradually revealed to be a socially-awkward outcast whose success was just a salve for his loneliness. He is revered by gamers as a god, but our main impression of him in READY PLAYER ONE is of an old man in a Space Invaders shirt. It's a truly pitiful image to behold.

Watts and Halliday are stranded in eternal prepubescence, where even kissing girls is an act of bravery too demanding for either to accomplish. They would seem to be the two sides of Ernest Cline, the man responsible for READY PLAYER ONE's screenplay and source material. By all accounts his novel is wretched, so I doubt I'll ever read it. Yet I can't help interpreting the film as a cri de coeur, a desperate request to be paid attention by an uncomprehending world. Please look at me, please acknowledge my existence, please treat me as someone worth your respect. And please remember me and the things that I cared about most. They matter because I do.

Is there something of Spielberg in these twinned gamer incarnations? Certainly the boyish adventurer is no new figure in this director's sprawling ouevre. However, I also suspect Spielberg must be looking back on his life and the impact he's had. In the 80s, he spread his vision of Reaganite innocence far and wide. In the 90s, he delighted kids like me with his roving hordes of lifelike dinosaurs. He took some time off from children's entertainment in the 00s, but he's back again in 2018 with one of the few films that seems to replicate the texture of this past decade. It's ground-breaking as ever, but can he really move forward while looking backward? The Halliday character says he created the Oasis because he had trouble connecting to the outside world, and it was easier for him to live through fantasy. It took old age for him to realize he'd misspent his life spinning comfortable illusions. Surely one of the US' foremost fantasists knows a thing or two about that? Maybe Stephen King isn't the only creator who hates his creation.

Returning to Hiroki Azuma, this is database plundering by one of its chief architects. Only Spielberg could play with his own legacy like this and get away with it at feature-length. Those who complain about this mash-up being hollow, superficial, or disrespectful to the works it references are missing the point. It doesn't matter that the Iron Giant was a pacifist, or that Spielberg's THE SHINING spoof is in bad taste. This isn't canon. It's fan fiction. READY PLAYER ONE embodies both the playfulness and joylessness of such endeavors, the open-ended possibility that somehow never feels all that satisfying. Even a photo-realistic recreation of THE SHINING will never have the same impact the original film does. That impact belongs to the first viewing, and even subsequent rewatches of THE SHINING can devolve into attempts at chasing that first high. The novelty may be titillating while it lasts, but it'll be time to move on sooner than later, lest that euphoric spike of nostalgia outlives its welcome. Diminishing returns are an ever-present risk in reviving the past.

I don't recall US culture always being like this. Maybe I was just too young to notice the retromanic shift happening all around me in the 90s and 00s. However, I think Web 2.0 was a paradoxical accelerant of this cultural centralization. Social media allowed for a transitory monoculture at the same time the Internet itself was reaching across the globe. Every day a new monocultural fixation emerges, only to be forgotten the day after. Yesterday it was the AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR trailer, today it's READY PLAYER ONE, tomorrow it'll be JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (executive producer, Steven Spielberg). Less one defined monoculture than an ongoing sequence of monocultural miniatures. Interchangeable beads added to an unending necklace.

Though of course, film franchises are nearly as old as the medium itself. Spielberg recognizes this, having contributed a fair few of his own. He keeps hinting that there might be a problem, that this entertainment ecology is headed for total collapse. Yet he can't ever bring himself to quit the blockbuster tradition he helped begin. He acknowledges the potential for stultification only so he can hold out hope for a conquering hero to emerge from the mass media sludge. How unusual that the most conservative moment in READY PLAYER ONE is also its most conventionally cinematic: the reaffirmation of a hero's journey, complete with female prize object, which lends meaning and purpose to the pop culture playground he grew up in. Attuned as he may be to the present moment, Spielberg can't help but fall back on grand narratives of his own. He is too wedded to the medium of cinema and all its mid-century promises. But cinema is no longer the world's premier artform (or even entertainment option). Now we have Pokémon; Super Smash Bros.; Funko Pop dolls; "shared universes"; Godzilla vs. King Kong; primetime TV show crossovers; Disney/PIXAR co-productions; Disney/MARVEL Studios corporate mergers; Disney/Lucasfilm corporate takeovers; and Disney/20th Century Fox corporate buyouts. I emphasize Disney because they're the ones who've discerned this new terrain most keenly, having realized it's their vast collection of intellectual properties that viewers are dying to see. The more characters at their disposal, the better. They are the biggest and most extensive database on the market; we are paying to experience their many simulations. If there's one thing I've always questioned about Azuma's book, it's how exactly this arrangement is supposed to benefit us. There will be no heroes, no collective otaku uprisings, only further retrenchment into privatized pleasure. In Spielberg's story, which is really Cline's story, which is really our story, pervasive entertainment and pervasive poverty cause no friction with one another. They are fully compatible. And all around us, the world crumbles.

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