“Ready Player One” (2018): Life Affirmation In the Oasis (Review)
This review is written by someone who didn’t read the book, and didn’t need to in order to love the movie.
Movies don’t speak to me the way they used to.
I do not hold this against them. I do not yearn to be coddled or reassured by films trying to tell my story or “represent” me. My favorite modern movies are simply the ones I find most compelling. They put stars in my eyes, give me heroes to admire, and sometimes sicken me to my core. And yet, the stories they tell are never mine.
I’ve been reviewing movies consistently for five years, and I’ve long thought that my detachment was part of what made me good at it. More and more, I could approach films as objects of study, jump between optics of analysis freely, and understand films more broadly in the proper context of both history and contemporary culture. This has all worked to my benefit as a critic and hopefully to yours as a reader.
But what I didn’t realize was that on the other edge of the sword was a small personal cost. My emotional response to films has not been what it used to be. I have been blind to that.
This isn’t to say I haven’t had fun in a movie. It isn’t to say I haven’t felt real joy or sorrow on a character’s behalf. It is instead to say that my emotional intake of, and reaction to, a film has been severely limited – effectively one dimensional. I have appreciated good cinema, but I have rarely felt at one with it.
Then one evening, after a quiet day at the office, I went and saw a nostalgic Spielberg movie about gaming and pop culture.
Ready Player One is a half-animated sci-fi action adventure movie presenting the future of virtual reality and video gaming. In 2045, the world has gone to hell and the people have all, to escape it, turned to a massive VR network called the Oasis. It has made life both better and worse for all. On the one hand people can connect, explore an imaginative multiverse, and feel fully immersed in it and everything they do. On the other, their obsession with such an alternative world has diminished their lives in the real one. Shawn Woodley’s 2002 suicide over Everquest has become a predictable recourse for long-time players who “zero out,” the story’s term for being killed in the Oasis.
The film is right upfront about this, allowing it to operate as the backdrop for a very simple plot. On his deathbed, the creator and owner of the Oasis James Halliday (Mark Rylance) leaves behind an Easter Egg to be unlocked by three keys. Whoever finds them first will inherit his entire share of the Oasis, worth half a trillion dollars, and full control of it. Five years have passed since then, and although the first key’s location is known, no one has been able to get it. Not even the corporation IOI, which manufactures and sells VR equipment, and has a literal army of thousands of wage-slave players called the Sixers. Its CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) seeks control of the Oasis so he can override its ad blockers and better market his products through it.
Enter Wade Watts a.k.a. “Parzival” (Tye Sheridan), an 18-year old orphan in Columbus, Ohio who has essentially grown up in the Oasis. In the real world, his aunt is in an abusive relationship with an unstable middle-aged burnout who has squandered their assets in the Oasis, and has lost his life to it. His friends, Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki), and Sho (Philip Zhao) are all fellow gamers he’s met in the Oasis but never in real life.
Parzival has studied nearly every aspect of Halliday’s life and interests in the hopes of finding a hint to the first key. When he saves the life of the legendary player Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), befriends her, and figures out the first puzzle that gets his name and face onto the scoreboard of the entire Oasis, IOI targets him, and the race is on in the style of Indiana Jones, Minority Report, and The Adventures of Tintin.
Ready Player One is a lot to take in. Maybe too much all at once and a bit too fast. You can blink or even just shift your eyes to something else, and miss the text of a clue. Then it accelerates even faster in the fourth act, where the movie cuts loose with a synergy and gusto that is nothing short of overwhelming. So when that turns out to not actually be the climax, your rush may die down just enough to feel a little drag in the final fifteen minutes.
There are plot holes and physics issues too, of course, but these are not what makes a movie or a criticism thereof. In this case, quite the opposite. I can’t remember the last time I cared less about things like that than I did here. But it’s not that I wanted my buzz preserved or because I was too distracted or enthralled by references to things for which I harbor nostalgia.
It’s because movies are about higher truths and the journey human beings take to reach them.
Ready Player One isn’t simply true to the Millennial and Gen-Z experience of growing up immersed within video games and letting enthusiasm for their stories, adventures, and worlds partially define us. Nor is it simply true to the experience of living with the internet, creating a digital avatar that is as true to who you really are as your real-world self is. Both things are the inherent constitution of the Oasis, stated perfectly by Parzival’s narrating line, “You come for what you can do; you stay for who you can be.”
But great effects and animated design alone are not the stopping point. The character of the film – the higher truth it impresses upon us in the treasure hunt defies the utilitarian meritocracy of modern social media culture at its worst. I will not spoil the events, but the keys are not like Xbox achievements or PlayStation trophies – unlocked by luck or practice at the challenge.
The quest for the keys is a series of leaps into the mind of the Oasis’s creator Halliday. His life story, his passions, his fears, his regrets, and his choices. Think of the trials of God in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade expanded out to a full-length feature, but where god himself reveals his humanity, not his power. Halliday is not impressed by those like Nolan Sorrento who think they can just buy their way into dominance. Nor is he taken by a master level gamer like i-R0k (T.J. Miller), who has done nearly everything possible in the Oasis and only looks out for himself. The successor Halliday seeks is not “the perfect gamer,” but rather someone who can appreciate the value of life better than he could.
This is what Avatar-like graphics and animation efforts are truly for. With the Spielberg camera always at its most functional, the animation energizes the movements and interactions between the Oasis and the real world, upholding the importance of both. It allows Halliday’s sober ethic to go hand in hand with all the crazy pop-smash action you could ever want from anything without cheapening either. By its grace, confidence, and warmth, Ready Player One will ring real and true to every person who finds beauty, wonder, and self assurance in the story of a video game. It will ring real and true to every person who made a friend in an unexpected place through shared cultural enthusiasm, every person who marvels at social media’s ability to connect us yet deeply fears how it can be used against us, and every person who at one point needed a simple release from the lemons of life, and found it in a game that they could just play.
Needless to say, this movie hit me where I live like a lightning bolt, and I was utterly unprepared for it.
The only thing I haven’t talked about are the characters beyond Halliday. Not because there’s nothing to say, but because they are so familiar to me, I might as well just tell you about myself. In Parzival, Art3mis, Aech, Daito, Sho, and even i-R0k, I see my old self, my peers, teammates, friends, and second families. I have said what they say, thought what they think, and done what they do in their exact mindset. It’s not because I was an especially rebellious kid or some righteous crusader for the purity of gaming, nor because I did any obsessive item collecting. Nor have my relationships been like that. Their story is mine because I found part of life’s meaning where they did. And I felt the affection the film had for them, just as it had for both worlds and their interrelationship. All of Spielberg’s love for culture, all of the magic that has ever emanated from a movie – it was all right up there on screen and all around me in sound.
Thus, for the first time maybe since Raimi’s Spider-Man, I felt a profound personal kinship with a film. I was a kid again. I was a college gamer again. Yet it never asked me to lose my adult introspection for it.
And I felt, throughout its entire run-time, exactly what nearly every main character felt at any given time. When one character, because of something he did in the Oasis, suffers a tragedy in the real world, the emotions of which he can’t yet understand, and thus rushes right back to the Oasis like it’s his last friend left, I was right there with him. When characters in the Oasis express their fears of disappointing one another should they ever meet in real life, I understood exactly what they mean. Watching this movie felt like receiving a signed gift in surprise mail from a long lost friend who took the secrets I shared with him as a kid and made them into a multi-generational uplifting story. I had forgotten what that was like. It has joined a category of personal favorite films that I didn’t know I still had. And I genuinely envy every kid who enters the film unsure of what to expect, and breathes in the warmth of its understanding of the higher truths of their gaming and virtual experience.
Ready Player One is simply astonishing. So universally crowd pleasing, yet everyone will come away feeling like they have their own uniquely personal relationship with it.
Kind of like a venture into the Oasis itself.