More Like Ready Player Dumb

Congratulations, Steven Spielberg. It appears you’ve made the worst movie of all time.

This weekend, the trailer for Ready Player One popped up online. If it were completely original, it would be a mere incoherent mess. But with the dozens of characters and props borrowed from other, far better, movies, it’s a jittery ride into nostalgia hell. Which suits the source material, the worst book ever written.

Imagine a Reddit comment stretched to 300 pages and you’ll have a good idea of Ready Player One as a book. Ernest Cline’s book is spoiled brat lit. It reads like a dry-mouthed second grader reciting plot points from his favorite video games. Despite how much it’s convinced of its own cleverness, as the Twitter post below correctly identifies, it’s as basic as an episode of The Big Bang Theory.

Ready Player One doesn’t bother to do the difficult work of creating characters or building a story. It just references other works and lets the memory of those stories do the heavy lifting instead.

Cline frames junk food culture as delicacies. He’s flattering his audience for an obvious reason. It’s telegraphed, like an easily spotted con. Nonetheless, thousands of geeky rubes, including geek emperor Spielberg, fell for it.

Almost everything Cline mentions is over-celebrated, like Rush or Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s stuff every American over 35 would know. The pop culture choices are presented as markers of identity but they’re the same popular shit everybody in the world basically likes. It’s identity by way of brand preference.

The book’s set in a dystopian future America crushed by poverty and environmental disaster. People escape their material existence through OASIS, a massive multi-user virtual reality program created by a Bill Gates/Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg stand-in who’s long dead when the story starts. The real world is grim and brutal but people can be whatever they want to be in OASIS. (Cline alludes to porn, but doesn’t flesh out how virtual porn would work. Which is probably for the best, considering his recently unearthed, super-creepy, spoken word piece on geek pornography.)

The virtual reality program’s ownership is nebulous, but the Bill Gates guy hid clues deep in OASIS that unlocks ownership of the system. The book’s hero races against a cartoonishly evil corporation to solve the puzzles. The corporation’s end game, incidentally, is to add commercials to OASIS. Which, frankly, sounds like a good idea; I’m sure the hellish future world’s advertising industry professionals would appreciate the need for their work.

The puzzles aren’t really puzzles, exactly. They’re narratively inert nostalgia exercises. The hero doesn’t have to be clever or particularly brave to solve them. He just has to navigate geek touchstones like the ‘80s video game Joust or remember dialogue from the ‘80s movie War Games. And it’s curious that while the antagonist is a cliched evil corporation, no one reflects on how all the culture in the book is a product of a corporation.

The book’s awful all the way through. But there was a slim opportunity for the movie to be good. Never before has a movie so badly cried out for Paul Verhoeven. Had Verhoeven helmed the project, he’d have deconstructed the source material and dragged its toxic laziness to the fore. When Verhoeven read Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, the book bored and depressed him. Boredom and depression is the correct and true reaction to a terrible, too-widely revered book.Verhoeven’s film of the same name wasn’t an adaptation of the novel; it was a reaction to the novel. The mad Dutch director took the fascism he found so distasteful and welded it to an episode of Melrose Place to create a propaganda film from a parallel universe.

But it’s clear there’s not going to be a parallel cynical deep-reading of Ready Player One. Spielberg’s never been interested in cynicism or exploring subtext. He creates grand spectacles meant to instill a childlike sense of wonder and awe.  He’s using that command of spectacle to grant artificial life to the movie’s virtual reality fantasy world.

That’s exactly what he shouldn’t be doing with this dumb book.

Ready Player One celebrates escaping into lazy, corporate fantasy and passive consumerism. In the end, the fantasy virtual world is saved while the real world remains a poisonous mess. And that, bizarrely, is meant as a happy ending. Think about how this situation would play out in reality. It would be like celebrating the continuing existence of Facebook while people still can’t drink the water in Flint, Michigan.

The best version of this movie would never show OASIS. When the characters escaped into illusion, we’d be left staring at a dusty, used up Earth waiting for our heroes to stop playing make-believe.