In bringing to the screen a bestselling gamer-geek novel, director Steven Spielberg explores his own legacy as an object of fanboy worship.
Adapted from Ernest Cline’s breathlessly nerdy 2011 novel, Ready Player One celebrates the gods that nerds make for (and of) themselves. At its centre is tech guru James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who created the OASIS: a virtual universe where most people now hang out because the ‘real world’ of 2045 has been made vaguely awful by “the corn syrup drought and the bandwidth riots”.
As the film opens, Halliday has been dead for a decade. But somewhere inside the OASIS he’s hidden an ‘Easter egg’: a precious relic that will transfer omnipotent control of the system — and Halliday’s vast fortune — to the lucky finder. Ohio teenager Wade ‘Parzival’ Watts (Tye Sheridan) is part of a subculture of ‘gunters’ (egg hunters) who devote their time to seeking this apotheosis.
The key to locating the egg is to study the late-20th-century pop culture Halliday loved, which now structures the OASIS. And the film presents the one-dimensional Wade as the rightful finder because he worships Halliday most fervently. Commentators have already savaged the source novel for substituting its author’s favourite cultural references for setting, plot and character. As one writer put it: “It takes a tremendous set of balls to make your self-insertion character basically God.”
Steven Spielberg — a kind of god to creatives and critics of Cline’s generation — seems an appropriately recursive choice to direct this material. And Ready Player One is well crafted and fun to watch. Spielberg fans adore his blockbuster films for good reason: they’re masterclasses in visual suspense and witty action choreography. (Ever since Duel, he’s directed great chase scenes.) Sheridan even physically resembles the young Spielberg.
But there’s a certain exuberance missing from the fantastical, motion-captured universe of the OASIS. The director of a film driven by references is reticent to cite himself. Perhaps Robert Zemeckis — a more adventurous special-effects director, who is prominently referenced here — could have better marshalled the required cartoonish maximalism.
Nor is Spielberg interested in the OASIS’s sociopolitical potential as a digital commons. Ready Player One’s only concept of ‘resistance’ lies in what we could call ‘nerd neutrality’ — the right of all nerds to freely access the cultural materials they need to cultivate their nerd identities and freely associate with other nerds.
Its plot and characters are so frustratingly insubstantial they’re not really worth spending much time on. Parzival’s best friend is Aech (Lena Waithe), who runs an in-OASIS mechanical workshop; his other friends are Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao). And the famous gunter Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) joins forces with Parzival… seemingly only because the story demands he get the girl.
Racing this “High Five” for the egg is Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, utterly typecast by now), CEO of Innovative Online Industries. You can tell he’s evil because he wears a tie with ‘IOI’ written on it, and keeps his OASIS username and password on a Post-it note in his fancy haptic interface pod. He employs an evil field operations chief (Hannah John-Kamen), an evil bounty hunter (TJ Miller), an in-house team of ’80s culture boffins, and an army of debt-indentured storm troopers who are imprisoned, like battery hens, in virtual-reality booths.
What’s interesting and original here is the emptiness of Halliday’s hypermediated life, and the pathos of his digital afterlife. Rylance’s wry, sad-sack screen presence — which Spielberg has previously captured in Bridge of Spies and The BFG — is the best thing about this film. Spielberg’s Ready Player One isn’t the same as Cline’s: it’s less about a nerd’s worship of his hero than the loneliness of being worshipped by nerds.
Despite the inconvenient reality that cultural production is collaborative, worship of one person’s idiosyncratic creative vision is baked into the way contemporary culture is consumed and reviewed. Today, every creator is a god, and our pious prayers are intertextual references. Sometimes homage shapes the genre and tone of subsequent works, such as the film Super 8 or the TV series Stranger Things. Sometimes it surfaces in Marty Stu characters defined by their fandom, like notorious Spielberg tragic Dawson Leery.
Wade’s quest proceeds in God mode, as if on rails; Sheridan’s stolid performance is largely submerged in the twinky, mo-capped Parzival. By contrast, Rylance’s Halliday offers a more accessible portrait of loss and regret. Halliday’s obsession with movies and games left him unable to pursue unmediated intimacy: an irony lost on Parzival, who now obsessively pores over Halliday’s personal archives.
As Spielberg has aged — and, perhaps, mused on his own creative legacy — his films have focused on patriarchal guardians of posterity — whether it’s Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) striving to heal a nation in Lincoln, or Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) defending public-interest journalism in The Post.
Ready Player One’s shrewdest and most striking sequence sees the High Five roaming an astonishingly vivid simulation of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, where Aech — who hasn’t seen Stanley Kubrick’s film — bears the brunt of the hotel’s horrors. Spielberg is a massive Kubrick fanboy, but here he observes bleakly that to be a creator is to be undead, trapped within your creation — much as The Shining’s Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) will always belong to the Overlook.
Every time the High Five surmount a challenge in the quest, Halliday’s OASIS avatar, the benevolent wizard Anorak, appears to hand over a holy relic: a key to unlock the next stage. It’s all very Gandalf, very Dumbledore, very Merlin. These close encounters of the nerd kind provide moments of Spielbergian awe for Parzival and his friends; and as I watched, I thought I recognised the accompanying brass motif in Alan Silvestri’s score.
Then, with Parzival-like smarminess, I realised: it reminded me of the Holy Grail motif from John Williams’ score for Spielberg’s 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This motif is heard whenever Indy (Harrison Ford) discusses the cup said to have caught Christ’s dying blood. The melody represents an Arthurian quest infused not just with the promise of everlasting life, but also with sacred chivalric valour and the esoteric mystery of a direct connection to the divine.
I don’t want to suggest Spielberg deliberately inserted a callback to his previous work in this film. That’s the difference between a critical approach that mechanistically seeks to unlock an auteur’s ‘puzzle box’, and one that seeks organic cultural correspondences — serendipitous rhymes across texts, forms and decades.
The character of Indiana Jones is, of course, a nostalgic chimera of a Boomer film nerd’s favourite stuff. Spielberg, George Lucas and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan recorded themselves spitballing Raiders of the Lost Ark over several days in January 1978, and the resulting transcript is stuffed with pop-cultural references.
And the Indiana Jones stories meditate ambivalently on who gets to preserve the past, and why. Indy happily loots antiquities — but like Wade, he does it to prevent the bad guys from getting them first. And he’s ultimately humbled and awed by the mysterious power of ancient, holy artefacts.
In Ready Player One, finding mastery and satisfaction in reiterating the past is inherently melancholy. It is to be stranded out of your own time. Wade’s player-character Parzival is named after the Arthurian knight who quests for the Holy Grail. But where Cline’s novel takes its Grail cues from Monty Python, Spielberg depicts Halliday’s digital ghost with the poignancy of The Last Crusade’s Grail Knight: a penitent guardian trapped forever in a temple of his own making.