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Ready Player One is a fun romp that’s even more dystopian than it realizes

Why are we supposed to be rooting for the real world’s destruction?

Tye Sheridan in Ready Player One
Tye Sheridan in Ready Player One.
Warner Bros
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Ready Player One, both the 2011 novel and the new film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg, are all about pop culture nostalgia, specifically the sort that regards the 1980s as the apex of awesome.

So in one sense, I’m definitely not its target audience. I was indeed born in the early ’80s but grew up in a virtually pop culture-free world. If the fun most people derive from Ready Player One comes from recognizing the references, then I’m excluded by default.

But then again, Ready Player One is a big-budget dystopian adventure blockbuster — a genre I love — so it definitely is for me. I went in cold on purpose, without catching myself up on the book, so I could experience it as a movie without knowing where it was going. Judging by the reactions from the crowd around me at my screening, I missed a lot of the references; the movie played largely like a straight-ahead adventure film to me.

And for most of the movie, I was into it. Ready Player One can be a lot of fun, especially since its world building is skillful — and it has a lot of worlds to build. Seeing how the filmmakers — including the novel’s author, Ernest Cline, who co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn — conceived of this dystopian future and the simulacrum of a life into which everyone escapes was engaging. Sometimes adventure movies become so bloated with action scenes that the story stops being interesting, but Ready Player One resists that impulse for most of its runtime.

But about three-quarters of the way into the movie, I started to feel extremely uncomfortable, and that discomfort only increased as the movie skidded toward its conclusion. The movie was asking me to root for the heroes — but I wanted nothing more than for them to fail in their quest. And while that could work in a satirical film, Ready Player One is far from satirical. On the contrary, it seemed blithely unaware of how disturbing it was.

Ready Player One is set in a dystopian future. But it seems to have no idea how dystopian it really is.

Ready Player One is about a quest to save the (virtual) world

The year is 2045, and the world has gone to shit. It’s gotten so bad that most people prefer to spend their time in a massive video game called the OASIS, where they engage as characters in various worlds and collect coin, the in-game currency.

We learn all this in voiceover from Wade (Tye Sheridan), a teenage orphan who lives with his aunt in a trailer park and plays in the OASIS as an avatar called Parzival. Wade loves the OASIS. It’s where he’s met his friends and where he spends his days. And no wonder — the real world is a wreck, and everyone in it spends all their time in the OASIS too.

The OASIS was created by a pair of men named James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), and its success made them incredibly wealthy. It’s also, predictably, become the site of entrepreneurial pursuits, including those from a company called IOI, headed by the sinister Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).

IOI’s goal is to control the OASIS, a task it hopes to accomplish partly by offering repayment of in-world debts to people who enter into what’s essentially indentured servitude.

Tye Sheridan and Mark Rylance in Ready Player One
Tye Sheridan and Mark Rylance in Ready Player One.
Warner Bros

IOI will control the OASIS if it manages to crack a quest that Halliday left behind when he died: Players need to collect three keys from the OASIS, guided by clues that Halliday left behind that have something to do with the key to Halliday’s past — his Rosebud, so to speak. Whoever collects the keys will find the golden Easter egg at the game’s center, become the owner of the OASIS, and inherit a vast fortune.

But of course everyone wants to control the OASIS, including Wade, its biggest fan, who’s devoted himself completely to the quest. Like everyone else chasing Halliday’s egg, he’s had little luck — until he meets a fellow egg hunter (or “gunter”) named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), with whom he promptly falls in love. They start cracking Halliday’s code together, partly through recognizing various pop culture references and partly through good old-fashioned detective work.

These quests on which Art3mis and Wade (as Parzival) embark are where the film shines. How they unfold is often unexpected and funny, and the way various pop culture references are deployed feels less like name-checking and more like remixing. (One in particular, which takes place in the world of a famous film, is especially fun.)

And it’s just enjoyable to see how the story unfolds. The characters are not all that interesting — thinly written and at times unbelievable — but the ways they crack clues and navigate the world of the OASIS, all while staying a step or two ahead of IOI, are the best, most enjoyable kind of puzzle. The surface-level pleasures of Ready Player One are abundant and crowd-pleasing, and Art3mis and Wade’s journey is good, clean fun that nonetheless has big implications for the future of the OASIS.

Why does Ready Player One want us to root for the real world’s ultimate destruction?

That’s important to restate: The quest has big implications for the future of the OASIS.

It’s pretty common for heroes in adventure movies (and, not coincidentally, in video games) to discover that the fate of the world rests on their shoulders. But in this case, it’s not the fate of the real world; that world, the story suggests, is already broken beyond repair. The only thing worth saving is the OASIS, and that is the end goal.

Here’s the thing: To buy into this entire premise, you have to believe, as Wade does, that the OASIS is good. There are two reasons it seems good to him. First, it provides a place to escape from his dismal surroundings. And second, it’s a place where he makes friends — all of whom are real-world people also playing in the OASIS.

An early shot in the movie pans across the trailer park where Wade lives, trailers stacked high. Inside each trailer is a person wearing VR goggles and looking kind of ridiculous, because they are in the OASIS, playing games or fighting or whatever.

It’s one of the more frightening things I’ve ever seen in a movie, largely because it’s only a few notches past the world we inhabit now. It’s like a scene from Black Mirror: a world of people so distracted by their shiny technology that they have entirely neglected the stuff of human life. They’d rather just escape into another world, created by a couple of programmers.

To me, that seems transparently dystopian — not that the world is bad, but that nobody cares anymore about fixing it.

A scene from Ready Player One
Lena Waithe plays as Aech and Tye Sheridan plays as Parzival in the OASIS.
Warner Bros.

But Ready Player One has a different idea. There’s no sense in the film that anyone really should be paying attention to what’s brought their civilization to this place. (Which, for all its described evils, still has the wealth and technology available to deliver piping hot pizzas via drones.)

It sounds overly pedantic to say this, and it probably is, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what was going on in the world outside the OASIS. Were people starving? Or fearing for their lives? Can everyone afford to have headsets, or does this neglected world include people who have to live in the dystopic ruins without escape? What kind of unrest has driven them into this dystopic state? And why doesn’t anyone think it can be fixed? Isn’t it horrifying that they’ve just left it all behind altogether?

This would be some pretty salient Black Mirror-style warning about technology and bad social systems if it were just left there. The solution would be to see the OASIS destroyed so that people are plunged back into the real world and resolve to change it.

But Ready Player One presents itself as a story about a gang of brave, scrappy heroes who are motivated to save the world — but only the virtual world, the one that keeps them from engaging with what’s really going on in the physical world.

And the movie applauds this. It very obviously wants us to cheer for our heroes as they try to save the OASIS from destruction. I sat watching this all unfold, disturbed by the implication here: that we out in the audience are supposed to be on the side of escape. In fact, we are on its side, engaging in a movie that functions as an escapist fantasy itself.

It’s a little hard not to feel like the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

By the end of the film, the only concession to this weird dissonance comes in a sort-of statement that it’s probably good to take off the headset and actually interact with the real world now and then. Not to think about how the in-world injustices might map onto real-world injustices, or to fix problems.

Of course, Ready Player One has always played like a gamer’s fantasy. So this very adolescent view of the world makes a limited amount of sense. But it stands in pretty stark contrast to the spate of YA fiction in which the brave teenagers actually go fix things the adults messed up.

The Iron Giant is in this movie, too. (Now he’s a weapon.)
The Iron Giant is in this movie too. (Now he’s a weapon.)
Warner Bros.

And even if this is the story it chose to tell, from a teenage boy’s perspective, it’s still pretty hard to get around the fact that the storytelling itself wants us to root for the preservation of the Black Mirror-like scenario — not for it to be fixed. This isn’t satirical, and it’s no warning bell. It’s a hero’s quest. And what’s at the end of the quest hasn’t fixed anything at all. In fact, it may spell ultimate doom for the civilization.

I’m well aware that this perspective probably makes me some kind of joyless spoilsport. Why can’t I just escape into the movie and have fun for a couple hours without analyzing and dissecting it?

So be it. If the dystopian future looks like people disconnecting from what’s real to escape into fantasy, then I’d at least like to be paying attention when it happens.

Ready Player One opens in theaters on March 29.

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