Nostalgia is an evergreen crop – and when I was in my late teens and early twenties (1975-85), Carter and Reagan might have been successive presidents, but Steven Spielberg was King – of the movies, at least. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Poltergeist, Gremlins, Back to the Future – if Spielberg either or both directed and produced, it was gold – both as an entertainment and at the box office.
In the years since then, he has had plenty of hits as well as misses, and I am quite frankly apprehensive of his The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara – the very title betrays a point of view most definitely unshared by the eponymous protagonist of that film. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that he too has a certain hankering for the days when his name guaranteed success; in this film, adapted from the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline (who wrote the screenplay), Spielberg has definitely recaptured his old magic.
We are treated to the extremely dystopian Columbus, Ohio of 2045, where Wade Ross (Tye Sheridan) seeks refuge from reality in a VR game called OASIS. So do most other people, because the Virtual World of the game is so much nicer than the utter dump most of the world has become. Wade himself lives in a gritty inner-city suburb called “The Stacks” (due to its being piles of motorhomes), with his aunt and her parade of loser boyfriends. The game itself is almost two decades old, and while donning VR equipment, the user – represented by the avatar of his choice – can be anything, regardless of species or gender, he wishes to be. As “Parzival” (the Holy Grail is often bobbing around Spielberg films), Wade has become an important player in this world of “never-was.”
Before dying in 2039, Halliday had planted an “Easter Egg” in his virtual world, accessible with three keys, each of which he had concealed in the depths of the game. His own avatar, the wise Gandalf-like wizard Anorak, serves as a guard and partial guide to those who seek the egg possession of which would give the finder control of both the OASIS and the multi-billion dollar Halliday Corporation. A rival company is also very much after the egg, since, as their head, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), “we can cram advertising into 80% of everyone’s viewspace before inducing seizures.”
Wade finds the first key, falls in love with “Art3mis” (the avatar of another – initially unknown- person), and becomes world-renowned. Fame has its price, however, and Sorrento’s thugs move after Wade in the real world – with fatal effects for his aunt. Meeting Art3mis and other of his friends in the real world, at last, Wade must continue his hunt for the remaining keys, while staying alive.
In this latest outing, Spielberg both offers homage to his own earlier work and to the 80s pop culture that spawned so many of the references in the film. Particularly astute is his use of The Shining, which clips managed to be very funny and quite scary. Indeed, if you know that era, you might have some fun trying to pick out the decade’s references. Without spoiling the outcome for my readers, I shall say that the ending is in keeping with Spielberg’s earlier work – you will not go away unhappy.
At least, not until you think about the wider implications of the film’s plot and setting. The future is so unpleasant that no one doubts or questions the withdrawal of the majority of the world’s population into a virtual reality refuge. Halliday’s image within the game does tell Wade that “Reality is the only thing that’s Real” – which lesson he does try to apply later, with limited success. There is little hope that the outside world shall ever get better, any time soon.
In our own time, there are a plethora of escapes possible – which is perhaps why old music now outsells the new. For the Mediaevally-minded, there are Renaissance Faires, the Society of Creative Anachronism, and the Christmas Revels (as well as Madrigal Dinners and Boar’s Head Festivals). Any particular period of war has its share of military re-enactors, and the art deco societies scattered around the country do their best to make the 1920s roar again. LARPing is a phenomenon unto itself.
In the face of all this live-action escapism, one could be forgiven for thinking that our current real world is just as dystopian as the one inhabited by the hapless protagonists in this film.
As society’s masters have progressively freed their subjects of moral restraints – to the point where said subjects may now change their gender to any of the several existing or even create for themselves entirely new ones – one would have thought that life would become even more enjoyable. Instead, more and more people seek for whatever way out of this current reality they can find. It would also be easy to wave our fingers at such goings-on. But as Tolkien put it so succinctly, “It is easy to debunk escapism, but notice that it is usually the jailers who do so!” Rather than condemning such escapes as pointless exercises in, well, escape, ought we not to try to identify the qualities that make our present so dystopian – and try to eliminate them?
In any case, Ready Player One is above all a reminder of how entertaining Spielberg can be when he chooses to. If the rest of his career is spent making films like this one, it will go far toward reconciling us to our decline. This would only be fair, considering how the widespread adoption of many of the ideas he publicly espouses have helped create the bleak world which we inhabit.