There’s a scene about midway through when Ben Mendelsohn’s, sell out, stuffed shirt, businessman bad guy is laying out his evil plan. After they take control of The Oasis, the virtual reality game that has become the bedrock of society in the ruined and desolate world of the 2040s, they’ll jam it full of advertising. In a cute little note, they throw up graphics reminiscent of crappy, free-to-play mobile games. ‘We estimate’, he says, ‘that we can fill roughly eighty percent of the visual field with ads before the player will have a seizure.
It’s a funny line, everyone laughs, yet it seems to be so blissfully unaware of the irony with which it is being delivered. It sits in the centre of a film which owes both its existence and form to the same crass impulses that the supposed villain is espousing. The truth is, you don’t need to make something nearly as much as 80% corporatist crap before the framework seizes. You only need to fill it as far as they did Ready Player One.
It was never going to work as a film anyway. Ernest Cline’s expeditionary prose tickled its readers, the pleasure in the reading is not in the words but the power that they are imbued with. The book sets up its paradigms and places the reader firmly in the in-crowd. When Cline is explaining how to win at Joust or play the perfect game of Pac Man, he is explaining how to succeed in his world. It can be so easy, load up MAME, crack open your box set of John Hughes flicks, as a reader you can emulate being the most powerful and important person in the world.
This don’t work when you make it a movie. There’s no comfortable, quiet indoctrination, no way to ease you into the value system that this universe runs on. When the film opens on Tye Sheridan, lecturing us on how the fiction must be approached, I get guarded. When the film dives headlong into its equivalent of the book’s giddying, run-on sentence, breathless pop-culture references, if you ain’t there. If you ain’t on the in-crowd already, you’re out.
When you’re watching from this perspective, the feeling is almost unpleasant. Though, I’ll note that the book has a whole bunch of real problematic shit in it that this adaptation mostly manages to elide. Anyway, it’s rare to see a major blockbuster that is this happy alienating its audience; I’m sure out there in some screening room is the single person that the flick was made for. They’ll understand every reference before the characters explain what it is. They’ll probably in all actuality be Ernest Cline himself.
Because beyond recognition there’s no purpose to any of it. With one fairly winning exception, the properties the film employs, the rights that it leverages, aren’t employed with any level of wit or invention. We’ve seen the Iron Giant turn up in the trailer, so that it appears ain’t a spoiler but the film deliberately strips the image from the signifier. The film doesn’t engage with any of the media that it claims to so love, it just needs props.
Which is cynical enough, I’m sure, but that’s what the corporatization of art literally is. The aim to demolish nuance and meaning from works in order to make them accessible as a consumer product. Let’s move on back to the bad ad man a moment, the villain intent on upending everything, the monster that must be stopped. The film doesn’t realise that his work is irrelevant. He wants to steal these precious childrens’ dreams away from them, not realising that the ability to dream has already been stolen, commoditised and sold back to them for the precious little currency that they are able to scrape together.
Like early on there’s a joke about ‘climbing a mountain with Batman’ Is there anyone among us who can honestly say that their dream Batman roleplay fantasy would involve climbing a mountain? Nah. The value to the film isn’t that there is an actual Batman, it’s that the shape of Batman can be represented, a quick evocation of status. How many thousands of dollars do you think that cost them?
Speaking of which the way the film handles wealth is interesting because it’s pretty much divided in half. I’ve been describing the bit which happens in the video game. Our lead and his friends on a quest to follow the treasure map to the designer’s last secret, battling the squares that try to get in their way, amassing fame and fortune as their credibility grows.
Outside of the game our hero logs in on a shitty rig that he’s got hidden inside the back of a buried van in the dump next to the trailer park high rise where he shares a flat with his mother and her shitty abusive boyfriend. These people are battling for control of an empire, but what if it is in actuality just an empire of shit? What a fun concept that would be.
We don’t really get the chance to find out. Aside from brief asides into class consciousness the film don’t really got too much interest in real world struggles, both in the fiction and reality. It chooses to keep the world small, the underdogs and the powerful. It knows that by engaging in real optics its fragile premise would struggle to carry water against the tide of more interesting questions.
Film makes jokes about the mutability of race, gender and sexuality in a virtual space, but doesn’t deliver anything even when pressed. For all the handwaving at inequality, the film never chooses to depict the interaction that the wealthy would engage in with these systems. It doesn’t look at the politics or economics of this world at a time of what we are led to believe is massive upheaval. It’s like we’re being told the most boring possible version of this story.
And then Mark Rylance appears, mostly in flashback, as the game’s creator; whose performance makes it very clear he ain’t neurotypical without the flick ever having to commit to actually diagnosing the dude. He is the man who wrought all of this, the man whose death spurs the plot into action, and he’s played as this old quiet and tired dude. Sick of his creation, longing for simpler and more innocent times.
It’s hard to tell whether he’s unengaged (although he’s a great actor, I quite doubt that possibility) or just engaged on this completely separate level than anyone else. Perhaps he’s supposed to represent Spielberg himself, I could conjure a reasonable argument for it but I don’t see what use it would do. I think, like that Janusz Kamiński cinematography, he’s just taking what’s on the page and injecting it with more melancholy than is strictly needed. His movements mourn for a life more authentically lived, and the weight of someone who knows that they couldn’t quite bring themselves to even if pushed.
He is a destroyed man living in the ruins of a past he excavated to build a present that he hates. He’s literally the only character in the film to embody that perspective. Is this metacommentary, or is it just inept?
Whatever, I could be convinced of something probably on a filmmaking level maybe. The script is turgid and dull, it even hamstrings the one part of the flick that I truly love. Y’all remember Roger Rabbit? Yeah, that flick did this shit good. This one ends with one of the most profoundly stupid lines of all time, one which misses the point so badly that it’s like it came from a different world.
In maybe a few hundred years’ time some kid in a history class will raise their hand and ask, ‘What was late stage capitalism like at the beginning of the twentieth century?’ Their teacher will sigh, boot up the hologram or some shit, and play this movie.
Ready Player One is currently screening in UK cinemas.
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