When Steven Spielberg is on his game, it’s a wonderful thing to watch. And Ready Player One is a wonderful thing to watch. After his effective but pretentious The Post dropped earlier this year, I was hoping that Ready Player One would be a return-to-form for the old master, and I was right.
Ready Player One takes place in a not-so-distant future that is centered around the people who play in a virtual social media/gaming network called the OASIS. The story is great classic Spielberg – with iconic visuals, fun moments, and loads of borderline schmaltzy sentimentality. Yet, it also has a few glaring plot points that I just couldn’t let slide that keeps it from being truly great.
The world of Ready Player One is science-fiction at its best – showing us a possible future shaped by the trends and culture of today. It’s a virtual world of wonders to be sure, but it calls attention to a simple, dark truth about the human heart.
The Good: A Nostalgic World
Ready Player One shows that Spielberg hasn’t lost his sense of fun and whimsy. This film is a joy to watch. The tone hearkens back to his wonder-inducing films like Close Encounters, Hook, Jurassic Park, E.T., and the like. These films had loads of excitement, but also a lot of heart and humor. It’s a kind of movie that Spielberg helped invent and popularize in the 1980s.
The design of the OASIS was my favorite part of the film. It was a dense world filled with delightful details. For a child of the 1980s, it was a nostalgic feast. The whole film reminded me of a giant toy box, where characters from different franchises were brought together smashed up in an exercise in imagination – and it all worked.
Familiar characters and locales from television, films and video games were everywhere and pop-culture references abounded – like a densely-packed Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Wreck-It Ralph. Where else could one see a DeLorean time machine being menaced by King Kong? An especially good inclusion was the Iron Giant! It was just so neat to see those vintage characters doing cool things…though it did get a bit visually overwhelming at times.
I love when a movie can teach me something interesting, and Ready Player One was full of neat little tidbits about pop-culture. The most fascinating came at the end when the hero Wade was playing Adventure on the Atari 2600 to win the whole quest. I had no idea that Adventure contained one of the world’s first video game Easter eggs.
The Bad: Overused Villains and Confusing Worlds
The greedy, corporate villain trope is getting old. Nolan Sorrento is yet another one-dimensional corporate stooge whom the audience is supposed to hate because he wants to (gasp) make money and put ads in the OASIS (seriously…that’s his motivation).
It would have been more interesting to have agents of the government desire control of the OASIS. Government control over something like the OASIS would be much more prescient and scary (just imagine if politicians controlled Facebook, for example).
Speaking of government, I was surprised to see police officers come and arrest Sorrento at the end of the film. There didn’t seem to be any semblance of governance throughout the entire film. IOI was placing people in virtual gulags for having too much debt. How is that lawful? There’s no logic to it and no explanation given. Again, if IOI was a governing entity, the gulags would have made more sense because only governments have the ability to literally imprison people.
In three-quarters of the film, people who play in this world are confined to one space, where treadmills and other real-world tech help in the simulation of virtual space. Yet, during the final battle, people are seen fighting in the streets with their VR headsets on. This was probably done as a visual set piece by Spielberg to illustrate people actually doing something together. But it just doesn’t hold up. What if they ran into a light pole or something?
At the climax of the film, Sorrento came after the High Five with a pistol and waded through a group of at least 100 people. Really? So all those people are that cowardly that they couldn’t all gang up on the guy and take him down? Or maybe they’ve been in the OASIS so long that they don’t know to react in real danger. That was a frustrating “come on” moment.
Finally, every main character’s real-world persona was revealed except for I-R0k’s. That was very peculiar. I suspect that it has something to do with the charges of sexual harassment leveled against actor T.J. Miller, who portrayed the character. Still, it would have been incredibly poetic and ironic if this massively powerful game character was nothing but some puny nerd in his mom’s basement.
A World of Distraction
Like most excellent science-fiction, Ready Player One parallels a problematic aspect of today’s culture and predicts a future outcome. The film celebrates pop culture fandom and video gaming, but it’s not afraid to show the societal ramifications of a technologically-advanced future obsessed with both.
The OASIS is a realm of pure material desires and distractions – where anyone can be anything they want. We see reflections of this potential turn in the culture today. Many people are increasingly unhappy with their lives and disappear into social media, video games, and other earthly distractions. Some actually lament about not being able to live in fictional worlds like Wakanda or Pandora. I actually found it quite ironic that there was a club in the OASIS called “World of Distratction,” because that’s what the whole thing was.
Social media is definitely a reflection of this growing trend. We check our phones endlessly to get the endorphin high of a “like” and see our friends’ status updates at some far-off vacation spot (growing green with envy or blue with depression in the process). A pastor once told me that social media postings only show what the person wants people to see, and is not necessarily a reflection of the whole life. It’s the highlight reel, with all the bad parts cut out.
“All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” Ecclesiastes 3:20
The OASIS, much like social media, contained avatars who represent what their players wished they could be, and the players became consumed by it. The more I thought about it, the sadder the situation became to me. Some of the players went into debt in order to play the game, feeding it like an addiction. It was just a game, bearing no tangible fruit. As King Solomon lamented in the Book of Ecclesiastes, “Everything is vanity.”
In the Book of Matthew, Jesus taught about the folly and fruitlessness of becoming more interested in accumulating material things on earth:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:19-21
So what are these “treasures in heaven”? They are the things we do in this life that matter in eternity. It’s love, kindness, relationships with others – things that transcend the material world. Things that are of God.
During the quest for the Easter egg, it was revealed that the clues to the keys reflected OASIS creator James Halliday’s problems with real-world relationships. For Halliday, relationships were too difficult, so he decided to get lost in his creation.
Halliday had a hole in his spirit and he was filling it with material things, as all of the people who played in the OASIS. Everyone has this spiritual hole. Some people fill it with material things, but it was made for the eternal. It was only after he was dead that Halliday realized that real relationships are the most important thing in the world.
Those “treasures in heaven” we are storing up are the real-world impacts we have on people for God’s glory. We are here to serve and love God, and bring His love to all people through meaningful relationships. At the end of the film, Wade and the High Five choose to shut down the OASIS two days a week because they realize that it’s important for people to live in the real world and have actual, meaningful relationships. Jesus wants us to do the same.
End of the Game
Ready Player One was a fun movie to watch – full of incredible visuals and some neat pop-culture references. What keeps it from being truly great are some glaring plot holes. But it’s still worth watching.
The film has a great message that is very resonant in our world today. Video games, social media, and pop-culture are fun, and can even be useful, but they shouldn’t consume our whole world. In a culture that is increasingly becoming more and more obsessed with material things and status updates, we must keep our eyes on the things that matter in eternity.
So stop posting, checking your phone, playing your game, and tweeting every once in a while. Do something that matters eternally.
Originally posted on Reel World Theology.
Ready Player One (2018)
Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn,
T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, and Mark Rylance
Written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline
Based on the novel by Ernest Cline
Directed by Steven Spielberg