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Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, an adaptation of the 2011 novel of the same name by Ernest Cline, is about to debut. And the internet is ready and waiting to tell him why that’s a terrible idea.

Ready Player One is a terrible book and it will be a terrible movie,” the Outline proclaimed.

“Many people find its take on games and so-called genre art to be a dull, pandering tableau of reference points as an end unto themselves,” the A.V. Club informed.

Reading the end of Ready Player One, opined a writer for Tor, “I felt like a kid who thinks eating an entire cake by himself sounded fun — I was sick of it, and craving something of real substance.”

A time traveler from 2011 could be forgiven for being deeply confused by this response. In 2011, Ready Player One was beloved. It was “a guaranteed pleasure.” It was “witty.” It was not only “a simple bit of fun” but also “a rich and plausible picture of future friendships in a world not too distant from our own.”

What gives? How did the consensus on a single book go from “exuberant and meaningful fun!” to “everything that is wrong with the internet!” over the span of seven years?

Luckily, there’s a perfect stepping stone that can help us understand exactly how this transition happened. In 2015, Cline released his second book, Armada, to a reception that looked a lot closer to the consensus on Ready Player One today than the consensus on Ready Player One in 2011. And that’s because in 2015, the geek community of the internet was still in the throes of the seismic event known as Gamergate.

Gamergate was a toxic cultural battle filled with harassment so vicious it would become a major influence on the alt-right — but fundamentally, it was about who gets to be a geek, which parts of geek identity are worth lauding, and which parts are destructive. Gamergate changed the way we talk about geek culture, and in the end, it would make it borderline impossible to think about books like Ready Player One as harmless, meaningless fun.

When Ready Player One came out, it felt like an escapist fantasy for gamers

Warner Bros

Back in 2011, it was almost impossible not to think about Ready Player One as harmless fun.

The premise is appealingly silly and insubstantial: It’s 2045, and the dystopian world has become unbearable. As an escape, most of humanity spends its time plugged into the OASIS, an expansive VR landscape that incorporates most of the 20th and 21st centuries’ pop culture into itself, so that users can pilot the spaceship from Firefly to a Dungeons & Dragons castle.

The plot is more pleasant nonsense. The founder of the OASIS, James Halliday, has died, and he has left his fortune — and control of the OASIS itself — to the person who can track down an Easter egg he’s hidden inside the game. To find the egg, hunters (gunters, in the parlance of the book) will need an encyclopedic knowledge of Halliday’s beloved 1980s pop culture. And our hero Wade, an 18-year-old video game addict from a trailer park, is sure that he’s just the man to do it. He just has to find the egg before a massive corporation gets its hands on it instead, regulating away the freedom of virtual reality and ending the OASIS as Wade knows it.

What ensues is an exuberantly paced quest narrative that begs to be devoured like candy and refuses any hard questions or contemplation on the reader’s part. Why would you want to think about how potentially toxic empty nostalgia can be? Ultraman’s fighting Mechagodzilla over here!

The writing was never very good — it’s mostly just long lists of pop culture references and Wade’s opinion as to whether the property in question sucks or rocks — but for the kind of book Ready Player One is trying to be, that doesn’t necessarily matter. The primary aesthetic pleasure here is one of recognition: Yes, I know that reference, and yes, I agree that it sucks or rocks. And Ready Player One is there to serve that pleasure to its readers on a silver platter — assuming its readers are also gamers obsessed with the bits of ’80s pop culture that were built with teenage boys in mind.

But the main thing Ready Player One is doing is telling those ’80s-boy-culture-obsessed gamers that they matter, that in fact they are the most important people in the universe. That knowing every single goddamn word of Monty Python and the Holy Grail can have life-or-death stakes, because why shouldn’t it? (Yes, that is a crucial step in Wade’s battle to save the OASIS.)

For readers in Cline’s target demographic in 2011, that message felt empowering. For readers who weren’t, it felt like a harmless piece of affirmation meant for someone else. Everyone deserves a silly escapist fantasy, right? And since Cline’s silly escapist fantasy wasn’t specifically meant for girls — unlike, say, Twilight, which was getting savaged in popular culture at the time — Ready Player One was largely left alone by the people it wasn’t built for. There was the occasional harsh piece of criticism from the in-group, but mostly, the response was welcoming. Even the New York Times, which noted that “gaming has overwhelmed everything else about this book,” gave it a gentle, mostly positive review.

Four years later, Armada came out to a very different reaction.

By the time Armada came out, Cline’s escapism had come to seem toxic

Warner Bros.

Armada, like Ready Player One, is primarily a delivery mechanism for geek nostalgia and geek affirmation, only in this case it’s focused on alien invasion stories rather than just ’80s pop culture. (Although this main character, like Ready Player One’s Wade, does have an anachronistically encyclopedic knowledge of ’80s stuff.) It takes the premise that the video game industry is actually a secret government strategy meant to train civilians to fight against an alien invasion — so when the aliens come, gamers are the human race’s best hope of survival.

Over the course of the book’s first act, 18-year-old Zack Lightman goes from nerdy high school gamer to a captain in the Earth Defense Alliance, adored by all for his video game prowess and provided with not only his favorite snacks and gaming music but also a specially bred strain of weed designed specifically for gaming. “All those years I spent playing videogames weren’t wasted after all, eh?” he crows to his mother. (Cline loves the word eh. His characters all sound vaguely Canadian because of it.)

The aesthetic pleasure here is the same as it was in Ready Player One — “I get that reference!” — and so is the central idea: that gamers have the potential to be the most important people in the universe. But in 2015, readers no longer welcomed such pleasures with universally open arms.

The Washington Post dismissed it as “nostalgic narcissism.” The A.V. Club found it “depressing.” Armada was a dull retread of Ready Player One, critics opined, filled with off-putting nerd gatekeeping and lists of better and more interesting stories instead of any original ideas of its own.

“It’s as though Willy Wonka made you prove you knew the chemical composition of nougat before he let you into the chocolate factory,” The Verge complained.

The most oft-cited and deeply damning Armada review was at Slate, by Laura Hudson (now an editor at Vox’s sister site The Verge). “The shameless, jejune wish-fulfillment of the book burns hot and bright,” she wrote, arguing that Armada was “cringingly terrible and transparent” in its “self-indulgence,” and that Cline’s status as the apotheosis of nerd culture “should be troubling to anyone who identifies with the label.”

For Hudson, the empty nerd nostalgia that Cline’s work champions points to something toxic in nerd culture itself. “It’s a valuable question for gaming culture — and ‘nerd culture’ more generally — to ask itself,” she wrote: “Do we want to tell stories that make sense of the things we used to love, that help us remember the reasons we were so drawn to them, and create new works that inspire that level of devotion? Or do we simply want to hear the litany of our childhood repeated back to us like an endless lullaby for the rest of our lives?”

Hudson doesn’t mention Gamergate by name, but that’s the elephant in the room here. Gamergate is why the toxicity of nerd culture is a more-than-reasonable peg for a review of a book like Armada in 2015. It’s why, at the time, people were thinking a lot about the toxicity of nerd culture in general. And it’s why, four years after the debut of Ready Player One, it was no longer easy to think of Cline’s nostalgic, nerdy fantasies as harmless.

Gamergate is about gatekeeping. So is Ready Player One.

Warner Bros.

Gamergate’s origins are nebulous and contradictory, as ably outlined by my colleague Todd VanderWerff. What’s important for the Ready Player One conversation is what Gamergate had evolved into by 2015, and that is: angry gamers (mostly young, straight white men) hurling abuse at their targets (mostly women) in the name of a kind of nerd purity.

That abuse took the form of graphic rape and death threats, sometimes so detailed and specific that some of the women targeted by Gamergate went into hiding. Occasionally, Gamergaters would send SWAT teams to their targets’ homes (a popular trolling tactic that has led to death in at least one case).

It was all a particularly vicious and brutal kind of gatekeeping. Gamergate’s targets were primarily people who were interested in performing feminist critiques of video games or in making nontraditional video games for women or disabled people or people of color. For this, packs of angry nerds decided that they must be punished.

Culture writers who think a lot about nerd culture were deeply shaken. They started to write think pieces about how nerd culture could have become so deeply toxic, so profoundly misogynistic and destructive, that it could birth a movement like Gamergate.

“There’s a fundamental lack of empathy or understanding for other human beings at play here,” argued Andrew Todd at Birth Movies Death. “These people live in a fucked-up alternate universe where everything is done for the lulz, or to win points in some kind of psychopathic game of one-upmanship. What we’re seeing is the gamification of a social struggle.”

At Destructoid, Jonathan Holmes pointed the finger at “the sentiment of elitism. The idea that there are certain kinds of gamers that deserve to take pride in that name, and others that should be ashamed. The process of establishing superiority over another group of gamers by belittling them.”

“By the turn of the millennium,” wrote Leigh Alexander at Gamasutra, the cultural imperatives of gaming were: “Have money. Have women. Get a gun and then a bigger gun. Be an outcast. Celebrate that. Defeat anyone who threatens you. You don’t need cultural references. You don’t need anything but gaming.” Those imperatives, she concluded, would create “an amorphous cultural shape that was dark and loud on the outside, hollow on the inside.”

And unfortunately for Cline, his work reads like a compendium of all the aspects of nerd culture that critics have come see as a breeding ground for Gamergate.

How Gamergate killed Ready Player One

Warner Bros.

Both Wade and Zack follow Alexander’s imperatives like they’re checking them off a list: They start off poor but then make millions from their video games. They earn cool hacker girlfriends like trophies. They get guns, and then bigger guns. Their cultural references are valuable purely for their use in gaming — any culture that exists outside of their video games might as well not exist. And gleefully, they celebrate their outcast status.

“I was too weird, even for the weirdos,” Wade announces at the beginning of Ready Player One. His school doesn’t “get” him, so he heads to the OASIS. There, his ’80s pop culture knowledge ensures his high social status, andhis debates with his best friend — over which ’80s properties rock and which suck — are considered “high in entertainment value.” When a fellow player dares to question his knowledge, Wade is able to beat him into submission under a stream of trivia (“You’re holding Swordquest: Earthworld. … Can you name the next three games in the series?”) until his rival “lowers his head in shame” and the watching, awestruck crowd “bursts into applause.”

The world of Cline’s escapist fantasy is a world of elitist gatekeeping. It is a world in which a person’s value is determined by their knowledge of esoteric cultural trivia, where those of lesser value must be defeated and wiped away, and where gaming is all that matters. And, crucially, it is a world specifically for straight white men.

Cline’s cultural references are all aimed at boys. The pop culture of the ’80s that’s built for girls — like Jem and the Hologramsor The Baby-Sitters Club or the American Girl dolls — has no place here.

There are girls in his universe. Wade’s best friend has a white male avatar but is secretly a black lesbian, a revelation to which Wade reacts by deciding that it does not matter because he doesn’t even see people’s race, gender, or sexuality. It’s a passage that reads remarkably like the “I don’t care if you’re black, white, green, or purple” speech, and that carries the same basic problem: Wade should care that his best friend is a black lesbian because those are important facts about his best friend’s life. But in this world, they’re unimportant, because only things that affect straight white dudes really matter.

And then there’s Art3mis, Wade’s love interest. Art3mis is as flat as a paper doll, a character who exists only as a prize who will reward Wade when he proves his masculinity. Sure, we’re told that she’s strong and smart and a great gamer — but she’s never allowed to be such a good gamer that she poses a real threat to Wade. Her gaming skills are just good enough to make her a worthy prize for our hero, unlike other girls, who we are given to understand are empty-headed and vain. (Wade is forever comparing the avatars of other girls unfavorably to Art3mis’s effortless cool, an attitude you can see repeated in some of Cline’s old poetry.)

And Wade wins her by hunting. Art3mis repeatedly tells Wade that she’s not interested in a romantic relationship, but Wade wears her down in the end by sheer force of his nice-guy persistence. “She’s basically a NPC [non-player character],” concludes Beth Elderkin at io9.

All of these issues may have seemed trivial or unimportant pre-Gamergate — but by 2015, that was no longer the case. Now, they were all many critics could see when they looked at Cline’s work. What used to seem fun and frothy and harmless in Ready Player One was dead; Gamergate killed it.

To be fair to Cline, at no point does his work endorse harassing women or minorities or suggest that Gamergate was a super-good idea that’s just been tragically misunderstood. So to some readers, the persistent association of his work with Gamergate seems to be both a stretch and fundamentally unjust. Why can’t they just read a fun dumb fantasy about gamers saving the world without feeling like they’re somehow endorsing rape threats?

“Hey, guess what?” wrote Chris Meadows at TeleRead. “Many of us who abhor Gamergate are nonetheless gamer nerds ourselves, and we actually can enjoy reading about video gamers being depicted as awesome while still feeling that women are people and worthy of respect, too.”

And of course you can read Ready Player One as a fun dumb fantasy. No one’s stopping you! But Cline’s world is not just one in which gamers get to be awesome, but alsoone in which gamers get to be awesome specifically because everyone else sucks. It’s a world in which women are trophies, the concerns of straight white men are all that matters, and the greatest possible calling of anyone’s life is the rote memorization of trivia at the expense of all else.

Cline does gesture at the idea that there is a world outside of video games. Wade is briefly humiliated and depressed by the life he’s built for himself — one of total isolation, in which he never leaves his crappy apartment with its blacked-out windows because he’s too busy searching for Halliday’s egg. And when he encounters Halliday’s avatar in the OASIS, Halliday passes on some words of wisdom to him: “As terrifying and painful as reality can be,” he says, “it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real.”

But the moment reads as lip service, because Ready Player One’s heart has no time for the world outside of video games, not really. It’s too busy nerding out over how freakin’ cool it is that Ultraman is fighting Mechagodzilla and a kid is saving the word by reciting every goddamn word of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

And in a pre-Gamergate world, the sheer glee and fun of moments like that were enough to make the dark underbelly of the fantasy disappear and carry Ready Player One to the heights of cultural phenomena. But post-Gamergate, the dark underbelly has become all too apparent. The fun isn’t quite enough to carry the book anymore — so now the onus is on Spielberg’s forthcoming movie to overcome its Gamergate baggage.


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Dissecting ‘Ready Player One’ and Its Biggest Problem

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[This story contains spoilers for Warner Bros.’ Ready Player One.]

The following is the second monthly installment in a series of conversations between noted comics writer Alex de Campi (No Mercy, May Day) and agreeable Hollywood Reporter contributor Simon Abrams. This month’s conversation concerns Ready Player One, director Steven Spielberg’s new adaptation of Ernest Cline’s hyper-popular science-fiction novel. 

Like Cline’s source material, Spielberg’s movie follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teenager who likes to escape from his futuristic, economically depressed reality into the OASIS, a virtual reality world that’s like the Matrix, only with more 1980s nostalgia. After James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the socially awkward creator of the OASIS, dies, Watts bands together with a group of fellow misfit video-game players — role call: Art3mis (Olivia Cooke)! Aech (Lena Waithe)! Sho (Philip Zhao)! And Daito (Win Morisaki)! — to save the OASIS from being overtaken by evil corporate overlord Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).

This month’s conversation did not go as planned. It was supposed to be a straightforward series of six 500-word exchanges, three apiece. But the writers’ feelings about Spielberg got the better of them. And this conversation became more like de Campi and Abrams’ real-life post-screening bar-side arguments. So, without further throat-clearing: Let’s get ready to rumble!

Alex de Campi, Valley Forge: Welcome back to this month’s edition of Simon and Alex Watch Controversial Blockbusters So You Don’t Have To. Last time, we threw oil onto the faux-feminist dumpster fire that was 50 Shades Freed. This month, we stand poised over our joysticks for Ready Player One. Remember: Simon is the actual film journalist who knows things, and does his research and stuff. And I’m the goon he brings along as “control.” (Please imagine William Shatner singing “Common People” as I type this.) 

I have to admit, I was nervous going into this movie. It’s gotten a lot of social media pre-hate, from people who don’t like the book at all, and not helped along by some awkward marketing and poster design decisions. And full disclosure: As with 50 Shades Freed, I haven’t read the book. I have limited time on this earth and I don’t intend to spend it reading things I’m fairly sure I won’t like. 

But this film? It was a lot of fun. The pop-culture overload that must be as momentum-killing as Homer’s Catalogue of Ships in Ernest Cline’s book is far less overwhelming when it’s all visual. It just doesn’t matter, she says, totally hiding the fact she squealed like a little girl when there’s a glimpse of the ship from Silent Running

Spielberg has made a film where all the pop-culture window-dressing is ultimately irrelevant to the actual story. If you don’t recognize a damn thing, it still all hangs together. I even got weepy during the hero’s Big Third-Act Speech. (This is possibly not as great a recommendation as it seems, considering that I have also gotten weepy during the trailers for Christian motivational films.) 

The cast all acquit themselves admirably, but ultimately it’s Mark Rylance’s film, and he walks off with it from his first line right through the end. I have quibbles, certainly, and I want to talk later about the differing effectiveness of Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s live-action work vs. their CGI work. But I had a great time watching it. 

Simon, you hated it, yes? Do you think you might have liked it more if you hadn’t read the book? 

Simon Abrams, Giant Floating Zardoz Head: Before I start: Shatner’s cover of “Common People” is pretty great. See? I like one thing in this article. One, one thing!

Now, to begin: Yes, I hated Cline’s book, despite wanting to to love it. Wade Watts is, on the page, extremely annoying. And the quests that he has to complete in the OASIS are pretty dull. Many times, when he steps up to a challenge: The gauntlet is briefly described, then he does the thing, and then poof, it’s over. Wow, thanks, Ernest Cline, I really loved hearing about how your guy beat a giant D&D-style Lich King at Joust, or deciphered lyrics from Rush’s 2112, or re-enacted all of WarGames scene-for-scene. That’s not only exciting to read about — it tells me so much about your character and his world!

Feh. Watts is so smug and uncritically enamored with pop-culture trivia — from several generations before the character’s time — that I never bought Cline’s gentle mocking of Watts’ adolescent perspective. Cline especially likes to make fun of Watts whenever he — as “Parzival,” his thinner, faster virtual avatar — stumbles into Art3mis, an attractive, flirtatious and mysterious OASIS avatar who, like Watts, seeks Halliday’s Easter Egg. But Watts’ relationship with Art3mis is often more than just kittenishly awkward. She is presented to him as a reward at the end of the book: She waits with hands folded in the middle of a labyrinth that looks like a map in the Atari 2600 game Adventure. And how about the way he disregards her wishes when she asks him to back off after he says “I love you” because, at the time, they have yet to meet in real life? Cline dismisses Art3mis’ understandable need for space by making it seem like the only thing holding Watts back from his girl-shaped prize is her insecurity about her real-life looks (she has a wine stain bruise covering half of her face in the book). It’s OK, pretty lady, I’ll win you over by reassuring you that I still think you’re pretty! 

Unfortunately, a lot of this soul-less fanboy pandering is present in the film adaptation, which Cline co-adapted with Zak Penn. There are some major improvements in this adaptation, as I’ll get into in my second salvo (OK, I admit it: I liked more than one thing). But, as I told you shortly after I flipped off the film for its awful Terminator 2: Judgment Day reference: There’s a lot of fun window-dressing in this film surrounding the gaping hole where its heart should be. 

For starters: Sure, there’s a lot less exposition in the film, but there’s still way too much left over. Just reams and reams of dialogue and blocky “world-building” conversations that eventually made me want to scream. That’s why I yelled back at the film when a red-haired female gunter (or, “Easter egg hunter,” ugh) and Watts both laboriously explain why Halliday loves Adventure so much. This scene isn’t just annoying for the ways it diverges from the novel, but also because it suggests that the filmmakers are still as awkward around girls as both Watts and Cline originally were. After all, in an earlier scene, this lady gunter looks like she knows exactly why Halliday liked Adventure, even if an oafish colleague does interrupt her before she can say her piece. But when she does speak up in a later scene, it’s as if she’s just had a breakthrough — at the same exact time as Watts. Because heaven forbid that this anonymous woman be smarter than our hero!

Watts and his relationship with Samantha (Art3mis) is also improved, but still basically insufferable. The wine stain on her face is tellingly insubstantial, reminding me of Terry Gilliam’s complaint about E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial: How could such a cuddly lil’ alien teach real kids that monsters can be human, too? The lesson comes pre-learned: See, she really is as gorgeous as Watts thinks. Advantage: Schlubby milquetoast white guy (he’s at least a little overweight in the novel). 

And don’t get me started on the way that she selflessly tells Watts that he “deserves” to win the contest more than her or their friends. Or how about the way that every other interaction seems to insulate Watts from questioning why he should obsess over Halliday’s childhood as if it were his own? All of these aggravating but hardly world-ending shortcomings drive me nuts, especially the fact that Art3mis’ love is still basically Watts’ reward at film’s end. She is the “real world” that the Halliday-shaped OASIS program encourages Watts to find at film’s end. Without her validation, he is less real. How romantic.

I also wasn’t as enamored with the film’s set pieces, which were pretty, and adequately filmed and choreographed. But man, so are the action scenes in Robert Zemeckis’ recent films! He’s conspicuously name-dropped twice, specifically: an OASIS artifact called “Zemeckis’ Cube” and Back to the Future‘s DeLorean car. But I also thought about Zemeckis’ good-but-not-great recent films, like The Walk and Allied, two films that prove Zemeckis, as my friend Matt Zoller Seitz once put it, doesn’t know his strengths as a storyteller. These movies are wonderful when they’re all about set pieces, and world-building (shudder, that word). But they inevitably collapse whenever you have to care about what happens to the characters.

I hesitate to say this, but I didn’t see Spielberg’s usual heart, gift for character-driven details or focused vision in Ready Player One. Instead, I saw Steve Buscemi dressed up like a high-schooler with a backwards cap on, saying, “How do you do, fellow kids?” This movie is so embarrassing that it made me angry at inaptly deployed references to Mecha-Godzilla and Groucho Marx, as if I was a teenager who can’t stand seeing somebody cooler than him touching his stuff. This movie gave me zits without any good reason, and I hate that!

I’m too mad to set up the next round! You’ve got this, he typed huffily!

De Campi: Look, I’m not saying that Ready Player One is a movie that will rearrange aspects of the world for its viewers. Heck, I’d be surprised if any of it remained in its viewers’ consciousnesses 24 hours after they saw it. It’s not that film. It’s like a mashup of The Lego Movie and Captain America: Civil War, one of these noisy, constantly moving thrill-pieces that has just enough character moments to give you the illusion that it means something. Hey, I like looking at money onscreen. And for this type of movie, Ready Player One acquits itself well. Also: Art3mis, as a female lead, is a well-developed character with real motivations who does several things better than Parzival. And it does not feel like she’s there just as a prize or to admire him, even if their romance does feel super-rushed. Aech is a lot of fun, and I would have loved to see more about them and less about Wade/Parzival, to be honest. 

But there’s a lot that frustrates me, too. Main antagonist Nolan Sorrento’s avatar couldn’t scream Bad Guy any louder if he had a Flex Mentallo “Hero (Nero?) of the Beach” glowing sign over his head. His motivations are cardboard, and his avatar (aka how he sees himself, if he could be anything) only reveals his two-dimensionality. How much more interesting would it have been if his avatar was female, or more traditionally handsome, or something that gave him a hint of an inner life? The screenwriters try to ameliorate the ridiculous over-design of I-R0K (T.J. Miller), his skull-thoraxed henchman, by making him alternately whiny and wisecracking. But it doesn’t work. I also agree that every one of the Nerd Makes Sure You Understood That Reference moments are cringe-making.

As for your comments on casting: I think it’s a little unfair to be upset that real-life Parzival and Art3mis aren’t ugly enough. Hollywood doesn’t make films about ugly people, my friend, except for passion projects involving actors caping for Oscar’s attention. The pact of filmgoing is the pact of any religion: They can be prettier than us, but they have to suffer more than us. And do they, in Ready Player One? No, which is where we come to your comment about a hollow core. The only character who truly suffers is Rylance’s James Halliday, who is magnetic in his shy, silent agony every time he’s onscreen. Everybody else could believably walk away at any time in that story. Nothing keeps them there, not really. But there is so much sound and fury and oh, here come the bad people in vans, that it’s hard to notice all these things until after the film is done. And then the whole edifice just…crumbles away. 

In a time where the online environment for so many people is one of harassment and viciousness — where Parkland kids are being victim-blamed by gun supporters, and artists on DC comic books, like Ethan van Sciver, pursue racist harassment campaigns on Twitter against black critics — the online world of Ready Player One with its golly-gee, lend-a-hand attitude seems outdated, like Second Life. Plus, as anyone who’s spent time in them discovers, nerd subcultures can be some of the most toxic places in existence. Ready Player One is the sort of book beloved by the mainstays of these toxic subcultures, the self-appointed gatekeepers who thrill to punish people unable to keep up with the book’s diarrhea of nerd-culture name-drops. Yet the only bad person in all of the OASIS is Nolan Sorrento.

Spielberg has always presented a more positive view of humanity in adversity than we perhaps deserve. It’s why he’s so beloved — that and his amazing visual storytelling. And he is very visible in the live-action footage, from the gorgeous opening tracking scene that doesn’t need a single syllable of its lengthy voiceover to establish everything you need to know about Wade, to some truly masterful action moments when the Bad Guys first come for him in his high-rise trailer park home. But, to put things into perspective, there were far more Great Spielberg Action Moments in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and that was not a good Spielberg movie. 

As soon as you go into the OASIS (the CGI world), the Spielberg Touch vanishes. And unfortunately, 75 percent of the movie is set in OASIS. Everything is so busy and bright and constantly moving, it’s very difficult to focus on the lead characters and become invested in the action, and even his little hooks don’t hook. The first race for the Bronze Key is one of the most boring car races I’ve ever seen. And it has King Kong and a T.Rex in it, so that’s quite an accomplishment. 

But by the time the final boss battle comes along, I guess I had developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, because I was OK with it. I didn’t see a single shot that I thought, “OK, I’m stealing that someday,” but the whole leaning out of the DeLorean with a railgun like you’re a Vietnam-era Huey door gunner was kinda fun. The ultimate ending is both satisfying and completely predictable. 

Abrams: I agree that Ready Player One‘s basic scenario is like a mashup of The Lego Movie and Captain America: Civil War. But while I like the latter film and have seen it three times in theaters (don’t look at me, I’m hideous), the former movie pissed me off. I mean, I like it, in parts. But I’m put off by the idea of a patchwork Po-Mo world where anything can be thrown together for the sake of fulfilling some pseudo-child-like ideal of unlimited, context-less imagination! 

This is the part where I take my shoe off and start banging it on the bar. 

It’s bullshit, Alex! Because The Lego Movie not only tells viewers that all things pop cultural are made equal — it also insists that all things should co-exist side-by-side with each other. We’re all the same, the film says. We all want the same things! Nothing is invalid, and everything is allowed! What a load of horse manure. That’s the most pernicious myth of all, the nice-sounding lie that tells us that we are all the same at heart. No, we are not. “We” are different, and different is not bad. Because if you think that you are the contents of your bookshelf, then you may assume that liking different things than others is a kind of character flaw. 

Well-meaning, technically polished, but soul-less movies like The Lego Movie and Ready Player One leave viewers feeling good about themselves because this time, the meaningless onscreen conflict between Good and Evil has a flash of personality, a little technical flair, a lot of winking/self-conscious humor or whatever helps you sleep at night. But Ready Player One is about a blockbuster-centric world that’s not unlike ours, the one where Spielberg continues to remake every time he throws more production money at a new Transformers sequel. I want to believe that every Ready Player One finances two more The Posts. Because the only thing that can stop a bad person with a corporation is a good person with a corporation! But I also kinda don’t care? To arms, to arms!

Hang on, let me get down from the ceiling rafters. No, no, I can do it, just a second.

Look, I know my expectations for this film are unreasonably high. Let me try again. I love what you’ve said about Aech and Art3mis. And you’re right on a lot of counts here: These characters do have far more agency than they do in the book. They make choices, even if they’re sometimes unbelievable. Like, in the book, Watts — and not Art3mis — is the one who infiltrates Sorrento’s company and single-handedly sets up his team for victory. And look at Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki), two characters who are far more monochromatic in the novel. Here, they get to crack wise in ways that make them look like smarter than your average over-glorified sidekicks. But they are just sidekicks, and Aech does ultimately say that Watts/Parzival deserves to win. Which, uh…blood pressure rising!

I also love what you said about Halliday and how out-of-time his personal qualms with the OASIS are. But that’s why all of the Spielbergian touches — the relatively stream-lined narrative, the clever group dynamic, the sometimes goony, sometimes cruel sense of humor — rankle on my nerves. Halliday is never really in the film. Spielberg, Penn and Cline highlight this essential point later in an exchange that’s not in the book. Watts asks Anorak/Halliday if he’s just a program. He says no. Then he asks if that means Halliday is alive in real life. Negatory. Then Watts asks the million dollar question: What does that make Anorak/Halliday’s virtual presence? There’s no answer, because there can’t be, not in Ready Player One.

I joked with you about this earlier, but I really do think that Ready Player One would mean a lot less to fans if it were directed by anyone but Monsieur Spielberg. Sure, I would have preferred Joe Dante or the Wachowskis to make this film. Both Dante and the Wachowskis are better suited for this supposedly “subversive” (ha!) take on the corporatization of pop culture. But the idea of Spielberg examining his Godzilla-sized cultural footprint is tantalizing. Look at the Ready Player One scene that takes place inside an interaction version of The Shining (the movie)? This sequence isn’t in the book, mind you. It also pointedly repurposes several key scenes from both Stephen King’s original novel and Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson’s adaptation. In this specific context, Spielberg, Penn and Cline’s inclusion of waltzing zombies doesn’t seem so random, especially when you think of it as Spielberg’s way of questioning the value of world that he helped make.

Then again, I don’t see a lot of deep introspection in Ready Player One. There’s a lot of hand-holding and empty reassurances that you can love what you love because your love is pure, OK? But, if we are going to ascribe a personality to this hulking, worlds-spanning, self-justifying juggernaut…doesn’t this make Spielberg look a little self-pitying and/or disingenuous? I mean, no, I don’t honestly believe — and I never said I did — that they would cast “uglier” actors. Nor did I expect great insights on modern life’s heavy reliance on various kinds of virtual reality. But if you’re going to touch, but not follow through, on these heavy ideas, why do this film at all? If the key to enjoying Ready Player One is finding the human personality hidden inside its labyrinthine machinations — basically the same reason why Halliday loves Adventure: Warren Robinett, that game’s programmer, hid his name in a secret chamber at the heart of his creation — then why does everything here feel so…empty?

Also, I would much rather rewatch the flawed, but enjoyable Kingdom of the Crystal Skull before I ever go near Ready Player One. Good night, everybody! 

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