'Ready Player One's Love of the 80s Makes for a Disturbing Experience
How great were the 80s in America? That’s not a rhetorical question, because as someone born at the turn of the new millennium, I have absolutely no clue. The enduring sentiment in popular culture paints the decade as mythical; a prismatic fountain of opportunity and youthful adventure. In few places can this be seen better than by our countries continued and seemingly unbreakable reverence for the movies and entertainment that defined the 80s. From Ferris Bueller to Star Wars, visions of fantastic adventure and revolutions by the young against dreary monolithic evils were displayed with such zeal by the filmmakers of the time that it would not be unreasonable to mistake them for the endless barrage of rousing canvases that poured out of the French Revolution.
I do think it’s fair to question whether these movies and the collected memories they construct represent the true nature of America and Reagan’s similarly towering, monolithic government at the time. Ready Player One, however, the extremely off-putting new film based off Ernest Cline’s smash hit book of the same name, chooses to treat these movies as near-scripture to the era they represent.
Set in the graying dystopian world of America in the year 2045, Ready Player One stars Tye Sheridan (Mud) as awkward orphan Wade Wotts. You’ll be forgiven if you mix up Tye Sheridan with any of the identical, recent studio pushed young white male actors (like Taron Egerton from Kingsman or Ansel Elgort from Baby Driver). And in a performance so devoid of emotion and range that it’s most reminiscent of stale toast, Sheridan does not particularly set himself apart from the crowd. Wade, like the majority of humanity, lives most of his life in a massive virtual reality video game named the OASIS. A descendant of the internet and open world video games of the present, in the OASIS you can be whatever character, fictional or real, that you can possibly think of and explore a world filled quite literally with everything you can possibly imagine.
Mostly, though, it’s stuff from the 80s.
The reason for the games seemingly random, fanatical devotion to the 80’s is actually a largely ingenious set-up. You see the creator of the OASIS James Halliday, played by the venerable Mary Rylance (Bridge of Spies), set up a scavenger hunt in the game just before he died. As absolutely fantastic as it is mind-bogglingly conceited, Halliday drowned the OASIS in anything and everything related to the decade from his youth and left the world to sort through it to discover three mysterious keys and win control of the OASIS. This small yet blinding ray of hope has inspired the mud-dwelling masses including Wade (or as he’s known by his screen name Parzival), to run from their crumbling reality and gorge themselves during their Klondike rush through the virtual Garden of Eden. The result is an aimless and dying world too busy leaning on the pleasures of the past to look towards the future (sound familiar).
However, like the book itself, the script, penned by Avengers writer Zach Penn (god I know) and, in a big mistake, by the novel’s author Ernest Cline, Ready Player One is much happier ignoring any bigger questions and instead focusing on their elaborate easter egg hunt. Wade becomes the first person to find key #1, and along with love interest Samantha (screen name Art3mis) who is played by hidden gem Olivia Cooke (Thoroughbreds) and token black best friend Aech who is played by the charismatic Lena Waithe (Masters of None), they embark on their quest through a breathtaking mixture of colorful words and nostalgic wonderlands to win the prize. Opposing them is the sinister corporate head Sorrento (played with a ferocious dryness by Ben Mendelsohn in a role strongly stylized after Principal Vernon in The Breakfast Club). Other stars like TJ Miller and Simon Pegg also make appearances throughout, along with a colorful host of famous characters.
Now for its credit, the decision to let the animation, action, and nostalgia take center stage is not completely without merit, and the immediate effect is a thoroughly entertaining thrill ride. Helmed, and rather masterfully so, by none other than Stephen Spielberg, Ready Player One crams in a near infinite amount of beautifully realized pop culture artifacts and a sensory overload of masterfully executed action scenes reminiscent of the blood-soaked opening of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. And while the relentless onslaught of easter eggs turns numbing at times, they produced in me a consistent giddiness throughout not unlike that of the first time I went to Disneyland.
Yet as fun as these scenes on their own can be, Ready Player One’s conflicting and often blatantly missing viewpoints on its urgent and timely issues came off as more than simply a missed opportunity. In fact, the film’s glorification of humanity’s decision to reject their natural progression, and instead choose to lock themselves away in hollow animations of the past is deeply disturbing and Ready Player One quickly becomes the very antithesis of the noblest themes of the decade it claims to love. How is it that a movie that declares its love for the ideals of revolution and fighting against the status quo, is so content with allowing the unmitigated death of humanity and bravery?
The answer is that Ready Player One isn’t truly inspired by the 80s. Just like the subjects of the film, it remains trapped in an uncanny valley imitation of the American 80s. The certainty and unfettered sense of wonder from childhoods that defined the work of legends like John Hughes and an earlier Spielberg is no more, and Ready Player One is left to flail hopelessly at the flawed memories and hopeless nostalgia of an audience that is stuck in time. All the while it forgets what made the classics of the 80’s so relevant. The tenants of human greatness that must also be allowed to thrive today.
Where’s the rebellion?
Where’s the spirit?
Where’d the fight go?