Geekdom Goes Mainstream: Review of "Ready, Player One"


One of the more interesting social phenomena of recent years is the general acceptance and promotion of the obsessive items that were for decades relegated to the fringes: comic books, video games, and arcane science fiction and fantasy stories. Those of us of a certain age, we now seem to feel a certain obligation to say that we loved playing Atari video games or loved John Hughes movies or were unloved misfits in school. In a way, it's cool to have been a nerd back then, since everyone can be (proud) nerd now. 

I read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline a few months ago, prior to the movie coming out. It’s a strange experience reading a book that is completely tied to your formative years. While the cultural references were fun and the lighthearted plot centers around characters that have spent their lives memorizing obscure games, films, and books of my youth (I was born 3 days before James Halliday's birthday), there is a subtext that becomes clear as the novel progresses. In 2045, when the world is suffering from a global economic and environmental collapse, the virtual reality platform of the OASIS, where the majority of the story unfolds, is seen as both wondrous, but with serious downsides. As the novel makes clear, the OASIS has led to an epidemic of social isolationism, escapism and the very real problem that society at large has decided to retreat into fantasy rather than deal with the difficult circumstances that surround them. It is both an exploration of what is possible in our future and a warning to the risks of such advancement.

Unfortunately, a 2hr 20min movie will struggle with that nuance, and especially when helmed by Steven Spielberg. I find myself somewhat torn on the choice of Spielberg as director. On one hand, he is a hugely gifted director that is responsible for a gigantic portion of the mainstream culture of the 80's. Also, it is obvious that Spielberg knows how to direct serious films (ie. Schindler's List, Munich, Lincoln, the Post) which are both profound and capable of showing nuance and balance. Where he seems to struggle, is with the space between. An audience for one of his films seems to be divide strictly between those who are looking for adult dramas and those that want epic, loud adventure stories such as Jaws, the Jurassic Park series, and the Indiana Jones movies. 

Unfortunately, sometimes there are movies that are somewhere in-between. Much like when he directed Stanley Kubrick's unfinished A.I., there are so many moments in Ready Player One that feel like they could have been handled differently, with fewer explosions and whiz-bang special effects. Ready Player One is a fun, sci-fi adventure for kids, but it's hard not to feel that it was an opportunity that was lost to be something smarter and closer to the misfits that inspired it.