“Ready Player One” may be the best movie of 2018 — but only if you transform your theater viewing into a multi-sensual experience.
Here’s a short list of things my girlfriend Hannah and I did to keep ourselves from leaving the theater during this latest Steven Spielberg sci-fi trainwreck:
1. Engaged in a knuckle-biting thumb war
2. Re-learned binary code
3. Played a violent game of footsie that quickly became an all-out kick battle
And that was only our strategy to keep from screaming. A grizzled old man in the back of theater opted to fall asleep. He snored so loudly — and so musically — that his own noises would wake him up. Each time this happened, he grunted to indicate he was sorry for disturbing the other moviegoers (Hannah, myself, and a two couples on a double date in the back of the theater). We forgave him. Actually, we cheered for him: Musical snoring beats the hodgepodge needle drops of Van Halen, Tears for Fears, and Twisted Sister that Spielberg kept throwing our way.
But the movie. The movie. Based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, “Ready Player One” is gutter post-modernity, a torrent of pop culture references that powerwashed our senses for two and a half hours. Minecraft. Batman. Alien. Aliens. Tron. Jurassic Park. All meaningless, of course. I counted 89 references to equally obscure and painfully obvious shards of pop culture from the 80s, 90s, and the early 2000s. Fear in a handful of dust kind of stuff.
There was a plot, yes. It’s 2045 in Columbus, Ohio. Things are not too different — except about twenty years before, loser gamer nerdman James Halliday (Mark Rylance) created a virtual reality open world game system called the OASIS. Sick of a world that has become a giant Ohio — and justifiably so — everyone has decided to abandon life in the real world and live vicariously through Halliday’s system.
“Reality is a bummer. Everyone is trying to escape,” the film’s basement dweller hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) tells us.
But then Halliday dies, leaving behind a tripartite puzzle that involves a Wacky Races-style obstacle course to a bronze key, a trip through the set of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” for a silver key, and finally a trek out on the ice to play the Atari game Adventure for a gold key. Put ’em all together and the winner gets a bunch of coins and control over the OASIS.
Spielberg pits Wade and his motley cruë of VR gamers against Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), a cultural illiterate trying to take over the OASIS for financial gain. The odds are stacked against our heroes; they’re just kids and they don’t have the manpower to outgun Sorrento in the race for the OASIS.
But because Wade is so culturally savvy (he knows that one “Citizen Kane” reference!), he has the knowledge to outwit Sorrento and breach the mind of the all-knowing Halliday, who designed his race so that only the nerdiest pop culture junkie could win.
Kinda cool, kinda boring.
Knowingly or not, Speilberg has created an inordinately long screed to people who have the experience, but miss the meaning. “Ready Player One” presents a world full of people who can quote movies or reference old commercials, for the sole purpose of knowing them. We see 30 years of pop culture flash before our eyes with no attempt to qualify why it even exists.
When Hannah and I were sitting in the theater, this scared us. We hid behind our notebooks. But now, looking back, I think I understand. We didn’t see the movie in the optimal setting.
When I was in highschool, I remember seeing the 2007 Will Smith movie, “Hancock,” over the course of several months. Every week or so, I would flip on the cable TV station FX, and the movie would be playing. I never saw it from start to finish, and I’m not even sure if I have seen the whole movie. But I believe I saw it properly. By seeing the movie in bits and pieces, I have a fragmented vision of what it means — and a self-endowed reflection on man’s imperfectability.
“Hancock” is a movie about a shattered man unable to cope with the world. “Ready Player One” is about a shattered world unable to present any meaning to its viewers. I hope that one day I can turn on my TV and experience the latter in the same way I did the former.
Broken, twisted, and utterly incomprehensible.