“Ready Player One”: Marx and Meta Not in Play
“Ready Player One”
directed by Steven Spielberg
written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, based on Cline’s novel
acted by Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance
presented by Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures, Amblin Entertainment
MPAA-rated PG-13 for “sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, nudity and language”
running time: 140 minutes
Chicago screening options include 70mm at Music Box Theater, 3733 N. Southport, and Navy Pier IMAX, 700 E. Grand
by Bill Stamets
“Ready Player One” is the touching story of a Columbus, Ohio high school senior finding the confidence to kiss his first love. Steven Spielberg’s thoroughly entertaining two-hour and twenty-minute saga of adolescent self-actualizing is set amidst an epic contest to preserve the status quo of an escapist entertainment corporation in the year 2045.
Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) takes his cue from James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the world-acclaimed creator of the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) whose lifelong regret was not kissing the one woman he loved.
Regrettably, this teen odyssey deflects from seeing the OASIS as a digital opiate of the masses. The emotional maturity of an orphaned gamer who does not get out much– not the political economy of a massive multiplayer online immersive simulation game– is the tiny heart of this “action adventure” observing five online friends playing the biggest electronic game ever. Warner Bros. Pictures, Amblin Entertainment and Village Roadshow Pictures tender a $175 million prospectus for a user-friendly simulation of a nondenominational paradise.
“Ready Player One” invests no ironic narrative interest in a last-century lens-based movie medium now valorizing a consumer VR (virtual reality) tech platform that could make screenwriters, screens, theaters and concession stands obsolete. The film’s closing disingenuous claim is that real life is better than escapism. The lifework of James Halliday and Steven Spielberg, of course, belies that commonplace.
Screenwriters Zak Penn (“Last Action Hero”) and Ernest Cline improve Cline’s 2011 novel. Streamlining decreases locales, truncates chronology, and reassigns a couple plot turns to different characters. A virtual car race through Manhattan to Central Park is among the CGI spectacles replacing humdrum episodes in Cline’s text. Profuse references to eighties pop culture are filtered out. Two “Spielberg” namedrops in the book are cut, as are two uses of “fascist” to smear the corporate villain. Halliday’s corporation, the one we are supposed to root for, is Gregarious Games, shortened from Gregarious Simulation Systems in the book. A half-minute of ambiguous dialogue about a spectral character is tacked on for the film’s beguiling finale.
“Ready Player One” opens with Wade introducing himself and the OASIS: “I was born in 2027. After the corn syrup drought, after the bandwidth riots. After people stopped trying to fix problems. Just tried to out-live them… These days, reality is a bummer. Everyone’s looking for way to escape. And that’s why Halliday, that’s why he was such a hero to us… James Halliday saw the future and then he built it. He gave us a place to go, a place called the OASIS… He showed us we could go somewhere without going anywhere at all… People come to the OASIS for all the things they can do, but they stay because of all the things they can be.”
When he logs on “to escape the shitty hand that life dealt me” Wade becomes Parzival, his avatar in the OASIS. There he virtually hangs out with a few other avatars. These friends have never met in person. But they will. When they do “Ready Player One” will have little to say about online versus offline identities.
Parzival’s main reason to be in the OASIS is to one day own it. Upon his death Halliday hailed all OASIS players in a prerecorded video: Be the first to meet three challenges, find three keys, unlock three gates, and thereby win an Easter egg, as gamers term a special item hidden inside a game. Alluding to the Easter bunny, not the risen Christ. The ultimate winner gets OASIS and Gregarious Games, the company that Halliday co-founded in Columbus, Ohio. And a half-trillion dollars.
Five years later no one has figured it out. Most quit trying. Parzival competes with super-serious OASIS players called “gunters,” as in egg hunters. Most belong to clans to consolidate their efforts. Others, like Parzival and his four pals, toil solo.
Oologists, as in egg scientists, are a paid cadre of robin-egg-blue-sweater-wearing obsessives who over-analyze Halliday’s vast trove of eighties trivia to extract clues. Oology, by the way, is not another word Cline made up. The Oxford English Dictionary cites its origin in 1831 with the debut of a journal titled “British Oology: being illustrations of the eggs of British birds, with figures of each species, as far as practicable, drawn and coloured from nature: accompanied by descriptions of the materials and situation of their nests, number of eggs, &c.”
The Oology Department is inside Innovative Online Industries (IOI), the second largest company in the world after Gregarious Games. IOI dispatches its commando-styled avatars into the OASIS to hunt for Halliday’s mega-egg. They kill the avatars of gunters in their way. IOI also kills real people in the real world by deploying armed security agents and drones bearing explosives.
The detailing of two worlds in “Ready Player One” is telling. Living online differs from living offline. What do onscreen Columbus and online OASIS, one more fictive than the other, reflect about the reality where Spielberg, Cline and Penn live? They identify with Halliday, to whom they give the line: “I build worlds.” Game-playing interests them more than world-philosophizing.
The world of 2045 we see in the theater is limited to Columbus, Ohio. Grey skies. Drab garb. No trees or dogs. Meager smiles. Wade wakes up in his aunt’s trailer. He sleeps on her washing machine. Trailers are stacked in ramshackle towers. As Wade climbs down the metal scaffolding, we get peeks of his neighbors outfitted with VR visors and plugged into the OASIS. He sneaks into his hideout under a pile of rusty wrecked cars. That’s where he enters and exits the OASIS via an internet hook-up.
The Stacks, as Wade’s neighborhood is known, is a “ghetto trash rat warren,” sneers Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the so-easy-to-hate head of operations at IOI. Apart from a few street scenes, the only other side of Columbus in sight is the sleek headquarters of IOI where Sorrento runs the Halliday egg hunt like a corporate espionage and military intelligence mission. It’s a two-corporation economy, implies the film. I spotted only two ads. An IOC sign reads “Enlist.” A video billboard for haptic body suits reads: “Feel of Real/No Pain No Gain.”
Spielberg spares us the trope of television news clips of strife to bring us up to date on how the country got this way. He dispenses with the video newsfeeds watched by characters in Cline’s book. I am not even sure “United States” appears on the screen or soundtrack. Two things have not changed. A drugstore displays a “Medicaid Accepted” sign. And the police still issue the command: “Drop-the-gun-now-on-the-ground-turn-around-hands-on-your-head-walk-back-towards-me” without shooting to death the white man in a suit brandishing a gun.
Cline supplied more detail in his novel. (His site reproduces the covers of 16 translations, with Bulgarian, Japanese and Russian editions to come.) Sorrento ranted at greater length about Wade and his kind as “human cockroaches out there collecting food vouchers and using up precious oxygen.”
The popularity of the OASIS is boosted by “an ongoing energy crisis” and “an ongoing economic recession,” Cline writes. Gregarious Games and IOI headquartered in the same city yields a local upside in infrastructure: “Columbus doesn’t suffer the from rolling blackouts that plague most major U.S. cities.” The terrain between urban centers is described as a “lawless badlands” when Wade travels on “the deteriorating interstate highway system.” The 40 mph electric bus has “armor plating, bulletproof windows, and solar panels on the roof… A team of six heavily armed guards… protect the vehicle and its passengers in the event of a hijacking by road agents or scavengers.”
OASIS is far more fun. “You can climb Mount Everest– with Batman!” enthuses Wade as Parzival in his virtual tour for Spielberg’s audience. If you virtually fall from a virtual peak to your virtual death, you won’t feel it for real. What else is in the OASIS? Public schools and prostitution motels. No places of worship. Cline wrote in his book that Wade does not vote in local and national elections. “I did take time to vote in the OASIS elections, however, because their outcomes actually affected me,” relates Wade.
VR, videogames and films preoccupy the creators of the 2011 novel and its 2018 film adaptation. Gamer geeks can identify with the oologists. “Ready Player One” readers and “Ready Player One” moviegoers are alike as proxy gunters.
A clue in Robert Zemeckis’s 1985 film “Back to the Future” lets Parzival traverse Halliday’s first gate. Wade’s avatar tops the OASIS scoreboard. Parzival is instantly a global celeb. IOI targets him as an imminent threat to their takeover of OASIS, which Sorrento deems “the world’s most important economic resource.”
Parzival diligently mines a virtual archive for clues leading to the second gate. Halliday planted items for his site to relay to an alert gunter like Parzival. The archive’s English-accented curator avatar leaks a tip: “Rosebud,” a reference to an opaque clue in Orson Welles’ 1941 film. “Citizen Kane,” like “Ready Player One,” relates a quest to unlock a secret about a media titan. “Halliday kept track of every movie he ever watched, the week and the year he rewatched it, and how many times,” Parzival narrates.
Digital dioramas at Halliday’s autobiographical museum reenact incidents from his past. Parzival and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), his online crush and competitor-turned-partner, eavesdrop on conversations. They hear Halliday recount an awkward first date in 2025: “She wanted to go dancing. So we watched a movie.” A new clue leads to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” which likely contains yet another clue, so their avatars rush to the Overlook Theater and instantly find themselves inside the Overlook Hotel where Kubrick set his 1980 film based on a 1977 Stephen King novel. Art3mis scores a breakthrough by asking the avatar of Halliday’s date if she’d like to dance.
Cline incorporated a more on-message ‘80s film in his novel. Halliday hid one of his gates behind a poster for the 1983 film “WarGames.” Parzival points out: “`WarGames’ had been one of Halliday’s all-time favorite movies. Which is why I had watched it over three-dozen times.” Memorized dialogue equips him to unlock a gate. Parzival succeeds at a later gate thanks to watching “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” he specifies, “exactly 157 times.”
“WarGames,” directed by John Badham, features a Seattle high school kid (Matthew Broderick) hacking into a NORAD game titled Global Thermonuclear War. Helped by his girlfriend (Ally Sheedy), he averts Armageddon with the U.S.S.R. Parzival recites all the teen hacker’s lines with spot-on role-playing: “I was Matthew Broderick’s character in the movie `WarGames,’ I was in the movie.”
“Ready Player One” makes no play to put us inside itself using VR-like tricks, circa 2045. Two AMC theaters in Chicago where I attended preview screenings delivered meta-cinema moments of their own. The pre-presentation promo for Dolby Cinema promised a sensory experience almost on par with the OASIS: “Astonishing Brightness and Color/ Depth, Detail and Realism/ Moving Audio/ Completely Captivating.” Colliding ice cubes and bubbles of carbonation in a big cup of Coca-Cola sounded like the RMS Titanic repeatedly striking North Atlantic icebergs.
“`Ready Player One’ is a game-changer in Dolby Cinema,” touts AMC’s internet site. “The sleek, power recliners reverberate to move you deep into the story,” continues the come-on. The tech is not just “putting you at the center of the story” but it’s “letting you step into another reality and surrender to the story.”
“Watch a Movie or Be Part of One,” hypes AMC’s Navy Pier IMAX. Captivated participating is limited to sitting. The OASIS, on the other hand, will entertain in the near future without ever expecting us to “surrender to the story.” We are the storytellers. Exit writers for passive spectators; enter coders for interactive players.
True to his 1970s sense of high concept– a film premise simple enough to pitch in 25 words– Spielberg is neither conceptual nor high-minded about the film/game nexus his latest crowdpleaser. The big insight the late Halliday– via his artificially intelligent, archive-uploaded interactive avatar– imparts to Parzival is a sophomoric stoner tautology: “reality is real, you understand what I’m saying?” “Ready Player One” aims lower than Spielberg’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001) and “Minority Report” (2002). Those near future sci-fi efforts are rather serious considerations of corporate ethics and technologies of virtuality.
“Even with all the popcorn in a film like ‘Ready Player One,’ it does still have social meaning,” Spielberg told the New York Times. What could it be? The 71-year-old filmmaker might not have said what he meant by that, or the writer or his editor decided it did to matter. Spielberg told Reuters: “In a way, our story is a cautionary tale as well as a great adventure.” The one cautionary scene, however, is played for laughs. A young mom is too immersed in OASIS play to pay any mind to her son who’s trying to let her know there’s a pan in flames on the kitchen stove.
Sorrento is unambiguously the bad guy. How bad? He crows about “the first of our planned upgrades” at IOI: “Once we roll back some of Halliday’s ad restrictions, we estimate we can sell up to 80% of an individual’s visual field before inducing seizures.” Boo!
Someone tried to impart “social meaning” to Spielberg’s film by invoking the rhetoric of righteous rebellion. One advertisement reads: “Accept Your Reality… Or Fight For A Better One.” I doubt the writer or editor of that tagline read the book or shooting script. OASIS occupants accept OASIS as is. They are contented consumers. There is no “better” OASIS to “fight for.” Unless IOI gets its hands on the Easter egg. Then the OASIS will certainly get worse, unacceptably so. Fighting for a better virtual reality at that point would just be a fight to bring back the old OASIS.
Fighting for a better real world is inconceivable. Cline’s novel reported: “The Great Recession was now entering its third decade, and unemployment was still at a record high. Even the fast-food joints in my neighborhood had a two-year waiting list for job applicants.”
There is only a sliver of resistance in Spielberg’s dystopic 2045. Samantha (aka, Art3mis) belongs to a small cell located in the Stacks. We learn little about her comrades; one is shown buying fresh carrots at the market. They recruit Wade after knocking him unconscious with an inhalant. When he wakens in their lair, Samantha quotes a “Star Wars” line: “Welcome to the rebellion, Wade.” They are resisting IOI, mostly online. There are no boots-on-the-ground guerrilla operations against other powers-that-be. It’s not a have-nots versus haves scenario. Samantha wants to win the OASIS and spread the wealth to feed the hungry.
IOI ought to incite political opposition for operating Loyalty Centers, the Orwellian name for its indentured servitude facilities. People in debt to IOI for internet service fees or VR gear, like visors and haptic body suits, or people whose avatars are behind in their virtual bills in the OASIS are rounded up and incarcerated. Samantha’s ill father was worked to death in a Loyalty Center. She lands in one too. IOC locks a visor on her head and forces her to operate her avatar in OASIS doing dangerous menial labor with explosives.
Since OASIS is coded entirely out of ones and zeros, it does not add up that virtual demolition, virtual construction, or any other virtual labor by indentured avatars would do what coders are doing to demolish and construct parts of this virtual world. The film reworks Cline’s novel here. Originally in the book it was Wade who’s forced into a Loyalty Center. But his work there made more sense. He did online tech support to help IOI customers with their OASIS issues.
Virtual work by real workers is critiqued more incisively in “Sleep Dealer,” Alex Rivera’s 2008 political indie set in the near future. The U.S. has closed the Mexican border. Virtual migration of manual labor replaces bodily migration, legal and illegal, of laborers. Internet feedback links let a Mexican worker in Mexico operate a cyber-robot on a job site in the U.S. The remote worker could be a welder, nanny, waiter or orange-picker. “We give the United States what they’ve always wanted– all the work without the worker,” explains a manager in Tijuana.
Released in 2009, “Surrogates” is a sci-fi thriller like “Sleep Dealer.” Both weigh mind/body duality issues skipped by “Ready Player One.” “Surrogates” director Jonathan Mostow adapts “The Surrogates,” a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele set in 2054. This noir detective tale, reset to the “Present Day,” sharply judges virtuality. Arguably reactionary, humanist and technophobic, “Surrogates” moralizes about people who purposely experience the world by proxy.
“Become anyone you want to be from the comfort and safety of your own home,” advertises Virtual Self Industries. “You can finally live the life you’ve always dreamt of without any risk or danger to your self.” Corporate motto is “Life… Only Better.”
You can make your life better by buying a very life-like robot that’s better in every bodily way. As in the OASIS, you can choose your gender and age, height and weight, and the colors of your skin, hair and eyes. You are limited to a humanoid template. The OASIS offers unlimited species, life forms and even nonliving things to choose as your avatar.
Uncommonly good-looking, the surrogates in “Surrogates” only exist offline. At home you plug into a special recliner that lets you remotely operate your surrogate via the internet. It goes to your place of work– and play– where it sees, talks, hears, tastes and feels everything you would if you were there yourself using your own senses.
The Prophet (Ving Rhames) exhorts people or their proxies, via artificial eyes and ears if their surrogates are paying attention: “We’re not meant to experience the world through a machine.” An entry at the Multiversal Omnipedia site reports that the first surrogate, made for a quadriplegic, climbed Mount Everest. Not with Batman, though.
Years later the wealthy reclusive inventor (James Cromwell) changes his mind and condemns surrogacy as “a perversion” and “an addiction”: “I changed the course of human history when I created surrogates. Now I’m going to change it back.” He unleashes a virus to irreversibly erase the operating systems of all surrogates. Boston streets are strewn with inert, insensate humanoids unyoked from their human operators. Pale and blinking at the sun, the populace stumbles out of doors in their bathrobes to live again `in real life,’ or IRL as they say online.
Unlike his counterpart in “Surrogates,” Halliday in “Ready Player One” has no change of heart about his historic creation: “Some things are perfect they way they are.” Nevertheless he shows Parzival a big red button that can delete OASIS in toto. It’s unthinkable the new owner will hit it intentionally. Wade too is OK with the utopian game space as Gregarious Games always ran it, although he outlaws Loyalty Centers operated by IOI.
As entertainers in a capitalist society, Steven Spielberg and Ernest Cline are not typically paid to demystify their medium and disenchant fans. The film and its source novel are culturally self-conscious only insofar as they indulge in trivial fanboy and fangirl nostalgia. Lacking is curiosity about how an interplay of movies, games, the internet and virtual reality make us see, listen, feel, think, wish and live differently.
“OASIS would ultimately change the way people around the world lived, worked, and communicated,” conceded Gregarious Games co-founder Ogden Morrow in Cline’s book. Simon Pegg plays him in the film, where he is double cast as an avatar key to Parzival’s quest.
The film trims Morrow’s misgivings. According to the book, “he felt that the OASIS has evolved into something horrible” and wrote in his autobiography: “It has become a self-imposed prison for humanity.” Wade recounts: “As the era of cheap, abundant energy drew to a close, poverty and unrest began to spread like a virus. Every day, more and more people had reason to seek solace inside Halliday and Morrow’s virtual utopia.”
Headlines of articles papering the interior of Wade’s hideout include a Wired magazine cover asking: “Is James Halliday Playing Games… or Playing God?” In a voiceover the acolyte lauds the supreme gamer as god-like: “People loved him. They worshipped him as much as his creation.”
OASIS looks like Karl Marx’s nightmare of capital’s dream of distracting the masses with phantasmagoria. “Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes,” Marx wrote in 1843 while living in Paris. “Religion is the opium of the people.” This dictum is found in his “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” published in German in 1844.
Here is the line in context: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”
“Marx himself used opium,” write historians Victoria Berridge and Edward Griffiths in “Opium and the People: Opiate Use in Nineteenth-Century England.” His use was medical and metaphorical, argues U.K. sociologist Andrew McKinnon.
Opium did not suffer opprobrium at first. Among early auspicious mentions: “Bullein’s Bulwarke of Defence against all Sicknesse, Soarenesse and Woundes” in 1579. “Opium at prefent is in great efteem, and is one of the moft valuable of all the fimple medicines,” indicated “Encyclopædia Britannica; or a Dictionary of Arts and Sciences” in 1771. “In 1820s England, there were somewhere between 16,000 and 26,000 opium sellers,” note Berridge and Griffiths.
The year Marx penned his infamous metaphor, opium use was surveyed in “First Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the State of Large Towns”: “It was stated by the Rev. Mr Clay, that in the town of Preston alone, in 1843, `upwards of sixteen hundred families were in the habit of using Godfrey’s Cordial [labeled a “children’s opiate”], or some other equally injurious compound.’” Other brands to pacify English children were Atkinson’s Infants’ Preservative, Street’s Infants Quietness, and Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, which was imported to England from United States.
Reformers raised alarms about “opium poisoning” from overdosing. Opium was also used for suicide. Starting in the 1850s drafts of the Pharmacy Act and the Sale of Poisons Bill proposed restricting opiate sales in England. Stigmatizing opium users as moral defects came later.
OASIS is Halliday’s Remedy For Interpersonal Isolation. “I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world,” Halliday shares with Parzival. “I just didn’t know how to connect with people there. I was afraid for all my life. Right until the day I knew my life was ending. That was when I realized that as terrifying and painful as reality can be it’s also the only place that you can get a decent meal. Because reality is real.” (An oologist would catch that “decent meal” quip as coming from a line about getting a “good steak” in a 1977 New Yorker story by Woody Allen.)
After kissing Samantha, Wade announces: “We closed the OASIS on Tuesdays and Thursdays. People need to spend more time in the real world because like Halliday said, `reality is the only thing that’s real.’” Once there, in real life, outside of the OASIS– what will people do besides kiss?
To save the future of the OASIS, Parzival united OASIS avatars loyal to Gregarious Games and lead them to victory over the avatars of IOI. Any chance Wade and Samantha will lead offline masses to repair present reality? At the beginning of “Ready Player One” Wade says the OASIS came along “after people stopped trying to fix problems.” If 2045 is the year to make America great again, its fixers must log out of the OASIS first. And that can be uncomfortable. “It’s the only place that feels like I mean anything,” reveals Wade in the trailer. That line is not heard in the film.
Spectrally evanescent avatars in the OASIS are like impotent ideas attacked in “The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism,” a polemic Marx and Fredrick Engels wrote in late 1844, again in Paris. It was their first collaboration. They urged: “Ideas cannot carry out anything at all. In order to carry out ideas men are needed who can exert practical force.”
Online players and offline people are alienated, like “ideas” and “men” in 1844. Dualist disconnects are built into existence in 2045. What is to be done, practically? “Ready Player One” entertains no idea. When is good for you?
Tuesdays and Thursdays are open.