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I came across an article in Relevant Magazine that was terribly upsetting to me because it seemed to condemn both the movie and the book Ready Player One through misinformation. I considered writing a comment, but I realized that I wanted to give a thorough refutation of this article.
Reviews for Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One have not only been better than expected, but better than one would hope for.
How have critics viewed the movie? Rotten Tomatoes gave Ready Player One a 74% – Certified Fresh, IMDb gave it 8/10 starts, and its Audience Score was 80%. Hoping for low ratings is an opinion which sets up the tone for the entire article and presents a bias that has already been refuted by reviews.
It’s important to acknowledge the contingent of Ready Player One fans who think the book and the movie are triumphant odes to 80s popular culture, but it’s more important to acknowledge the more correct contingent of Ready Player One haters who find the book regressive and the movie ill-equipped to redeem it.
This article does not take much time in recognizing the other side’s argument and, in fact, creates a straw man argument from his opponents’ viewpoint. As a fan of Ready Player One, I can attest that fans do not simply view the book as an ode to 80s culture. I am sure that some fans are excited about the 80s references, but I honestly I don’t think that the 80s references are what make this story great. The book and movie are not regressive due to their timeless themes: Reality is better than virtual reality, and Community is essential. (Happiness is human connection.) The movie even changes some of the nostalgic references so that a larger population could recognize them.
Ready Player One is contrived, egotistic, and pandering.
I do not think that Ready Player One is contrived other than the planning it took to create the intricate world of the Oasis and the game played within it. I think that it does help that Ernest Cline used nostalgia to create a more relatable world from which he based the world that required a willing suspension of disbelief. If all use of nostalgia in movies were pandering, then we must condemn many movies. For example, take the recent Star Wars movies with their references to earlier movies in the franchise.
It’s bad because it embraces the worst parts of nerd culture, the parts that treat characters like objects and references like checklists. There’s no soul to this story.
Actually, Ready Player One condemns objectifying people and making checklists out of life. Samantha, or Art3mis, rejects Wade, Perzival, when he tries to objectify her. The movie does a wonderful job of showing how Halliday, the creator of The Oasis, regrets making his life like a checklist. One of the challenges in the movie is jumping over a hurdle that Halliday, in life, never had the courage to make. In a way, the movie shows Halliday allowing his fans a look into his soul, into what is beyond the game. It is a cohesive story about Halliday’s quest for happiness, a cautionary tale admonishing those who live in virtual reality to seek real human connection, something that eluded Halliday in his lifetime.
Here’s the synopsis: In a dystopian future, every American spends most of their time in a VR video game called The Oasis. When the founder of The Oasis dies, he leaves behind a trail of clues hidden within its virtual world, and the first person to solve all the clues earns both the founder’s fortune and control over The Oasis itself. The slick-named protagonist Wade Watts wants to be that winner. Honestly, it’s a super rad premise!
I agree, and I think this was an accurate representation.
The problem is, Ready Player One hamstrings itself by emphasizing Wade’s exhaustive knowledge of 80s pop culture, mastery of which is the key to following the Oasis’ clues, instead of lending him any sort of empathic motivation.
Empathetic motivation is part of Wade’s character arc. At first, he is quite selfish, but, through the quest experience, he learns to rely on his team in order to reach the hidden egg. He doesn’t want to at first because he feels that this will be perceived as a weakness, depending on others. In the end, he realizes that it was never the intention of Halliday for him to try to do this on his own. The true change in his character is demonstrated in the book by him “resurrecting” his friends and keeping his word to them that they would share in the prize money at the end of the novel. In the movie the same spirit is honored by having Wade obviously depend upon his “clan” in order to get past obstacles and when he declares that he will share the prize money with his “clan”.
Great swaths of the novel are devoted to listing out everything Wade knows about one movie or another, one game or another, or one song or another. He has movies memorized and he tells you about them. He has mad video game skills and he tells you about them. He catches every detail hidden in every Rush song, and he tells you about them. This is the braggiest nerd you’ve ever met, and the problem is, you can’t stop him from talking.
Yes, Wade does “wax eloquent” about his knowledge. This can be tiring at times, but the point of these passages are to develop how cut-off his character is from normal social interaction and how arrogant he is. This gives him a good place to start from in his character arc from selfish/surviving to caring/thriving.
There’s no talk in the book of Wade using the fortune to make the world better or “save humanity”—it’s a means for him to be super powerful, super rich, and score the girl he met online. That narrow, selfish intent makes the constant referencing feel self-aggrandizing and self-important, rather than externally valuable. It dooms the book.
There is actually talk of Wade using the fortune to take care of the large number of hungry people in this society that has had a terrible economic downturn. Wade even says, “We’re going to use all of the moolah we just won to feed everyone on the planet. We’re going to make the world a better place, right?” (p.371)
She’s Wade’s love interest, she looks perfect, and she’s also very good at video games and movie quotes. That’s it. Would you believe they end up together? Check another box on the “gross, manipulative fantasy” rubric, please.
Wade’s love interest, Samantha, or Art3mis, may seem this way at first, but her character, just like all characters in good books, goes through a character arc. The way that Wade views her changes, and the way she interacts with him changes. This is both because she learns to trust him and because he learns to view her as a valuable teammate, not just as the perfect girl he fantasized about.
From Wade’s friends to his love interests to the challenges themselves, everything in Ready Player One exists to make its main character look awesome. It’s uncomfortable and ingratiating in its self-centeredness and objectification, and that, ultimately, leaves the movie’s retelling toothless, even if it shakes off some of that, “Heh, you see me slay that dragon for you, babe?” sliminess.
Readers are supposed to root for the main character. There is nothing wrong with making the protagonist as admirable in his own world, but even Art3mis gets annoyed with Wade for his dramatic flair. Others that he is working with make fun of him for his egotistical ways. His pride causes him to get into several scrapes that his team helps him out of with cheerful banter.
More laudatory reviews of Ready Player One, the movie, praise the flick for its ability to maintain all the book’s reverence for 80s culture, but co-opt its obsessiveness into a satirization of geek-dom as a whole. Even if you think the movie’s winking and nudging, beyond just the “Remember this one?!” references, are effective in this regard, that message doesn’t really matter. The nostalgia play in this case is still creating a sort of cultural elitism you’ll find in obscure Reddit threads, snippy Facebook comments, and exclusive Buzzfeed quizzes.
Cultural elitism is not the phrase that should be used to describe Ready Player One. Yes, as discussed earlier, there are many points where the movie uses nostalgia, many knowing nods to movies and video games alike. This is done with the intention of good, honest fun. In Ready Player One the movie, The Shining movie is a level that Wade’s clan has to work through to get one of the keys in order to win the race to Halliday’s egg. When I saw it, I could hear people in the movie theatre getting excited because they had seen The Shining before. I hear murmurings of: “No, don’t go in there.” and “Oh, bad idea.” Isn’t it a little fun when you catch a reference to a movie you have seen before? This occurrence actually activates pleasure centers in your brain. So, the nostalgia element adds to the overall pleasure of the experience. Yes, you will probably not get all of the references. I certainly didn’t. Instead of letting that hurt my pride, I simply enjoyed what I did understand.
It seems to me that this article was written by someone who is not a self-declared nerd and despises everything having to do with nerd culture. I can understand if this movie is not your ‘cup of tea’, but that does not mean that you need to condemn it.