Half-Baked Preliminary Thoughts on Ready, Player One. The Movie
1. I had great fun watching this movie. I would have even if 80s pop culture weren’t my subject/passion. It’s paced beautifully, it looks great, the CGI is tremendous fun and the acting is adequate enough to not get in the way of that other stuff. The pop culture signifiers are whipped cream, not the sundae.
2. It’s about 60% true to the novel which is about average for Steven Spielberg. Remember the novel Jurassic Park was practically a dystopia with John Hammond as a maniacal billionaire (not kindly old Richard Attenborough) and at the end of the novel The Color Purple, the main character ends up befriending her abuser. Spielberg’s adaptations of well known novels are usually departures in at least one significant way.
3. The novel’s pop culture references are exclusive to the 1980s including extended sequences about the pioneering text adventure video game called Zork and the 1983 classic War Games. The movie has a very loose interpretation of “the past” pop culture-wise. It references Saturday Night Fever (1977), The Shining (1980), Nightmare on Elm St. (1984), Say Anything (1989), and The Iron Giant (1999) a span of 22 years and 3 distinct eras (maybe more) in pop culture.
4. There’s some good stuff here about who owns the future, about net neutrality and about how we spend our time but with and away from screens.
5. The movie’s politics overall though are on shakier ground. For most of the story, the protagonist wants to win a contest so he can rule a virtual world and get a lot of money for it, a hard ask for sympathy and relatability. Also, it is never in doubt that the protagonist is the most skilled player of the game and yet the movie still saddles him with a “we are the rebellion and must fight” speech. Rebellions are about power imbalance. If you are clearly the best in the field of battle, you don’t get to call yourself “a rebel”. LeBron James is not a rebel no matter how well or poorly the Cleveland Cavs do. And maybe I’m making too much of this but people with great power talking about what rebels they are feels a little Trump-y in its delusion to me.
6. Part of my problem with #5 may be that I think one of Steven Spielberg’s biggest weaknesses as a storyteller is how he handles villains: Villainous roles in Spielberg movies either do nothing for the actors who play them (see Paul Freeman who played Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark) or take remarkable actors and render them unmemorable (Remember the legendary Max Von Sydow as the villain in Minority Report? Neither do I). The latter happens in Ready Player One where the usually terrific Ben Mendehlson is written and performed as a laundry pile of tics and motivations that ultimately mean nothing. It’s hard to feel like the good v. evil struggle at the center of RP1 means anything when the villains motives are being dictated by the CGI and plot rather than the character.
7. There really isn’t much for the actors to do in this movie overall which is too bad, because between Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Ben Mendohlson and Mark Rylance, it’s a fine bunch.
8. Mark Rylance plays the deceased creator (not a spoiler. It’s revealed in the movie’s prologue) of the movie’s virtual world beautifully, as a sad brilliant man who never wanted to grow up and therefore never really lived and died of a broken heart because of it.
9. I hope I am not the only one who fears Lena Waithe is stuck here playing the magical black best friend.
10. I wonder if this is the end of our current 80s pop culture revival (see Stranger Things, Atomic Blonde, Red Oaks, GLOW, The Americans and I could go on like this). Historically when a genre or a time makes reference to itself being riffed upon, it’s over (See what happened to the 80s teen movie when Heathers became the first satire of the 80s teen movie. John Hughes never came to play again). And although RP1 is being talked about as a zenith of our 80s pop revival, its pop currency of “the past” is vaguer, looser, blobbier. Are we still in an 80s pop revival if everything from Saturday Night Fever to the Iron Giant counts too?