Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Enemy at the Gates: Cline & Spielberg’s Ready Player One

Tye Sheridan in Ready Player One. (Photo: Jaap Buitendijk)

When Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One was released in 2011 to a cavalcade of positive press, its nostalgia-fueled story (commonly compared to The Matrix and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) was understood to be harmless, enjoyable fluff, a beach read for the YA crowd and anyone who enjoyed a good pop culture reference. The book depicts a dystopian future in which everyone escape their depressing lives by retreating to the Oasis, a virtual reality simulation that spans an entire galaxy of artificial experiences. People spend their whole lives plugged in: going to school, shopping, earning currency, customizing their avatar, and engaging in video game experiences, from war simulations to racing tournaments. The creator of the Oasis, James Halliday – a pastiche of late-80s and early 90s tech and gaming gurus from Gary Gygax to Steve Jobs – reveals upon his death that he’s hidden an “easter egg” somewhere in the Oasis which holds the key to a vast fortune and total control of the whole simulation. A community of die-hard Oasis junkies who call themselves “gunters” (“egg-hunters”) dedicate their lives to deciphering the clues Halliday left behind, while a corporation called IOI is also hunting for the egg, using its vast resources to wrest control of the Oasis from the population at large. Gunters, including the novel’s protagonist, Wade Watts (aka Parzival in the Oasis), take it upon themselves to become experts on every single 1980s property that Halliday enjoyed, in the hopes that this knowledge might reveal a clue about the egg, leading to a bizarre situation in which a group of teenagers from 2044 are self-imposed scholars of obscure 1980s pop culture – memorizing dialogue from John Hughes films, obsessing over solutions to Atari 2600 games, and arguing the finer points of Rush’s oeuvre.

While this might seem like a canny examination of contemporary cultural issues – namely our collective and deeply puerile obsession with “nostalgia porn” – Cline fails to use this setup to attempt any kind of coherent critique, making Ready Player One just as fluffy and meaningless as the slavering fanboy culture it depicts. It’s not difficult to draw a straight line between this fictional setup and the real rhythms of modern internet culture, where the schoolyard exclamations of “You like Ghostbusters? So do I!” quickly transform into exclusive, cliquey groups of gatekeepers who substitute intimate knowledge of pop culture trivia for actual personalities, and mercilessly shun and mock those who can’t compete with their expertise. What began as mostly harmless cultural signposting, a way to identify other dorks in the wild, has morphed into a genuinely noxious subculture where one-upmanship, rote memorization, and a unique kind of competitive nerd scholarship are required for admission. This is what is meant by the term “gatekeeping” (which shares a lineage with the No True Scotsman fallacy): people who appoint themselves as “guardians” of pop culture, who will jeer that no matter how much you enjoy the thing that they also like, you’re not a real fan unless... The quick shorthand for this artistically bankrupt lifestyle is the Funko Pop – the squished cartoony plastic figurines depicting every conceivable character in popular fandom – or the t-shirt that’s all too easy to spot in public, in which two disparate pop culture properties are mashed together in a cutesy mutation: Han Solo and Chewbacca riding a miniature Millennium Falcon drawn in the cute, cartoonish style of Bill Watterson – Calvin and Hobbes in a galaxy far, far away. These mashups capture none of the nuance and spirit of the things they’re referencing, existing solely as hollow references in and of themselves, which makes them a perfect mirror of the material found in Ready Player One.

Gatekeeping is the key philosophy espoused by Halliday, whose Christlike wizard avatar locks the keys to his virtual kingdom behind an increasingly obtuse series of challenges designed to test the limits of obsessive dorkiness. Among many other trials, Wade Watts must complete a Voight-Kampff test, best a rival in a marathon game of Joust, roleplay Matthew Broderick’s character in WarGames, solve the Atari game Adventure, and recite, word-for-word, the entire script of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Only Wade can best these challenges, thanks to his unflinching dedication to the mastery of these games and the memorization of these films (to the detriment of every other part of his life, of course). On the face of it, there’s nothing really wrong with this sort of nerddom – or at least, there wasn’t in 2011 – but then, something called Gamergate happened… and everything changed.

Ben Mendelsohn in Ready Player One. (Photo: Jaap Buitendijk)

Quick recap for those who may have missed it: Gamergate was a movement that began under the guise of a “conversation” about free speech and “ethics in video game journalism,” but quickly devolved into a lightning rod for communities of hateful, ignorant, sexist white men, who found that in their collective harassment of female journalists, high-profile feminists, and game developers, they were more numerous and powerful than they had ever dreamed possible. The same sense of “ownership” over their favourite pop culture properties afforded by their gatekeeping behaviour translated into a sense of ownership over the culture itself, and as the bouncers at this particular club, they wanted to make it very clear that people of colour, members of the LGBTQ community, “SJWs”, and especially women were not welcome. As you can probably imagine, these prejudiced pigs were the people who frequented 4chan forums and Reddit threads, subtly transforming Pepe the Frog memes into racist dog-whistle icons, who would eventually come to the forefront as the group now recognized as the alt-right.

The connection between this culture war and Ready Player One, if it isn’t already clear, is that Cline’s novel thoughtlessly engages in, supports, and celebrates geek gatekeeping, inadvertently fanning the flames of this burgeoning community of bigots. Its primary lesson, in fact, is that unremarkable white boys who are stuck in a state of arrested development are special specifically because they obsess over 1980s pop properties like Thundercats and Transformers; that their rote memorization of facts and minutiae isn’t repellent and regressive behaviour, but the thing that actually makes them the most important people in the entire universe. Is the end result we’re seeing now really that surprising when you consider that, through works like this novel, we were telling nerds – without a hint of irony – that their nerdy knowledge is literally the key to saving the world? (Outfits like Penny Arcade, who could see the forest for the trees, were lambasting this idea as early as 2008.) Nothing in the text of Cline’s book suggests that this was intentional, and in the period leading up to the release of Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation, he hasn’t given any indication that he supports the venomous ideology of Gamergate or the alt-right – but it simply doesn’t matter anymore. The reality is that Ready Player One’s basic premise, once mere escapist fun, has since been consumed by the dark reality of the culture it exploits.

You can probably understand why I was apprehensive about the film before I’d even seen it.

I trust Steven Spielberg. I know that no matter the material, he’s going to find a way to elevate it for the cinematic medium, or at least make it emotionally resonant and engaging. There are really interesting conversations to be had here that he (along with screenwriters Zak Penn and Cline himself) might have sunk his teeth into – conversations about toxic fan culture, about the line between commerce and art, about capitalism as culture, and about the “ownership” of cultural properties – but neither book nor film even hint at these larger ideas, preferring to relax in the relative safety of nostalgic recognition, of the empty-headed endorphin rush that comes with pointing at the screen and shouting “Hey, I’ve seen that before!” What’s genuinely shocking to me is that the source material itself, this novel which was never very good to begin with and has now become utterly intolerable with the benefit of hindsight, is actually better constructed in terms of pacing and structure than its film adaptation! I didn’t have high hopes for Spielberg’s Ready Player One, but what disappoints me the most is that a filmmaker with so much experience and natural talent, whose work I’ve admired since the real-life era this film aggressively fawns over, couldn’t improve on the work of a hack flash-in-the-pan YA author (who himself couldn’t have anticipated the impact his own work was going to have). I was genuinely shocked at how flaccid and boring this film was.

I shared my screening of Ready Player One largely with groups of families (including my own), and the adolescent boys next to me would cry “That’s Tracer!” when one of the lead characters from Blizzard’s Overwatch made one of her numerous blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos. (This is one of the film’s primary goals: flashing recognizable pop culture figures on the screen for you to notice and then instantly forget about.) Paramount was clever to obtain the rights to Tracer’s likeness, since she would be – and apparently was – immediately recognizable to their target demographic, but this revealed something bizarre and troubling to me: the vast majority of the pop culture references made in Ready Player One are to relatively obscure 80s properties like Akira and Galaga, which these kids I was sitting next to would never have even heard of. What would an 8-year-old in 2018 make of a reference to Buckaroo Banzai? Would they understand what an Atari 2600 even is, and more importantly, why would they care? What’s troubling is that the answer to this question is simple: this material isn’t for that demographic at all, not really. It’s for their fathers – the very same group of people who were responsible for this poisonous culture war in the first place. That Spielberg (or whoever was responsible for overseeing the countless IP rights acquisitions for the film on his behalf, from Beetlejuice to Mechagodzilla) was content merely to make half-hearted concessions to the audience he’s supposed to be serving, in favour of an audience that, since the novel was released, has proven to be an extremely poor ambassador to general culture, is more than irritating to me – it’s kind of disgusting.

Lena Waithe and Tye Sheridan in Ready Player One. (Photo: Jaap Buitendijk)

It’s my belief that Spielberg is getting old; that he’s out of touch with these issues, and that the kind of interest he displays in his subject matter that you see in The Post, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies is totally absent here. Whenever he resorts to pop culture pandering, the result is historically unbearable (Exhibit A: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), and with Ready Player One he exhibits the same embarrassing ignorance of his source material as your grandpa trying out your Oculus Rift and not understanding that it’s just a game. The core concept doubtlessly sounded cute to him, but the film reveals a total lack of engagement with the material itself beyond its potential for whiz-bang blockbuster visuals. Cline and Penn’s script is a trudging sequence of setpieces lifted from the novel, more interested in dumping truckloads of exposition on its audience than in establishing, setting up, and paying off interesting or engaging characters, so all that’s left for Spielberg to attach to as a creative filmmaker is the machinery of the filmmaking itself: the language and rhythm of action, visuals, and dialogue. Ready Player One’s chief success is that Spielberg takes material so fantastical and schizophrenic and manages to make something comprehensible out of it, but it kills me that I have no more praise to give for the latest Spielberg film than “I could understand what was happening from moment to moment.” I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop; for Spielberg’s incisive emotional razor to cut to the marrow of what he’s presenting, but it never did. For all its beautifully-constructed visual flair, its remarkably fluid and exuberant camera work, and its propulsive action sequences, the film fails to engage on even the most basic emotional level, because I didn’t know or care enough about any of the characters.

My sister was with me at my screening, and most of the pop culture references that flashed across the screen were lost on her (probably because she’s a well-adjusted person who doesn’t define her identity based on fictional intellectual properties). The only things that she had to connect to, therefore, were the film’s characters and story – so it should be pretty telling that she hated the thing and couldn’t wait for it to be over. I was irritated that the filmmakers had cast relatively fit and good-looking leads in Tye Sheridan (playing Parzival) and Olivia Cooke (his rival/love interest Art3mis), since the novel portrays them as overweight and spotty (which gives credence to their desire to escape real life and don a more flattering avatar), but my sister was more concerned that she didn’t understand anything about their motivations or personalities. (Art3mis does provide a rapid-fire infodump about why she hates IOI and needs to find the egg to get her revenge, but it passes in about ten seconds and is never mentioned again.) The supporting cast, including Parzival’s friends Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki), and Sho (Philip Zhao), along with villains I-R0k (T.J. Miller), and corporate bastard Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), are underused to the point that it feels like the majority of their involvement in the story was cut for time. I think this really reveals the transparency and emptiness of the white-male power fantasy at the heart of this material, where even the diversity and talent in the film’s cast was a wasted resource. I can imagine apologists clapping back specifically about Lena Waithe – since both book and film portray a gay black woman, and isn’t that super progressive? – and my answer is that it would be, if the story and perspective and agency were hers; if her entire involvement in both book and film didn’t solely exist to prop up that of the utterly flavourless sucker-mouthed white boy instead, like all of the characters who aren’t named Wade Watts. Ready Player One erases or omits the perspective of its non-white and non-male characters in favour of a perspective that would be worth your scorn purely for its banality, if it wasn’t also tainted by a toxic history.

The film includes extended sequences set in a picture-perfect recreation of Kubrick’s The Shining that are pandering to the point of sheer disrespect, which is a feeling that resurfaces twofold when Aech’s hand-built recreation of the Iron Giant strides onto the front lines, an automated battle-mech whose source material – a gorgeously sensitive animated 1999 film about an alien war machine who learns to subvert his purpose and live for something more meaningful than pure destruction – is exploited so that it can run around causing pure destruction. It’s the mashup t-shirt, the Funko Pop, splashed across the big screen for the blockbuster climax; the entire mindless experience writ shiny and metal. It horrified me.

And let me be clear, for those who might accuse me of pearl-clutching with this take: it’s frankly not acceptable in this day and age for a filmmaker with as large a platform as Spielberg, and for an author given a second, even more high-profile shot at his own material, to fail to use their positions of power to transform this material into something positive, inclusive, affirming, and god forbid, interesting. This missed opportunity is irresponsible at best, and dangerous at worst. If you’re not upset at how this turned out, then frankly you’re not paying close enough attention. The key thing that both versions of Ready Player One miss, in all their fawning nostalgia, is that recognition is nothing compared to appreciation; that art is not something to be ranked and categorized and filed away in a bank of useable cultural currency like so many ethereal digital Oasisbucks™. To suggest otherwise is to invite the corrosion of the same culture you celebrate, at the hands of the people who are galvanized by these empty affirmations (in exactly the opposite way from the one you intend). I’m deeply disappointed that Spielberg’s film doesn’t even approach the quality of his other work, but I’m also deeply troubled that with all that’s happened since Cline’s Ready Player One was released in 2011, our pop culture has apparently learned no lessons, and we’re content to put our fingers in our ears and whistle the Jurassic Park theme while it crumbles around us.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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