Archives for posts with tag: Ready Player One

I gave a lousy review to Spielberg’s film version of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One at the time of its release*. I’ve recently listened to the audiobook version, narrated by the excellent Wil Wheaton. Yeah, excellent though he is as a voice actor (thumbs up to his narration of John Scalzi’s Lock In), he can’t overcome the problematic material.

One of the problems is the underlying trope’s hyper-masculinity. I know that that’s a buzzword these days, but protagonist Wade’s teenage trans/homophobia is hard to get away from. Especially when the character points out more than once that you don’t know what a person in The Oasis, the story’s virtual world, looks like in real life, with some variation on ‘she could be a 200 pound dude living in his mom’s basement.’

Wade (who goes by the name Parzival in the Oasis, a name which might be significant) is a nerd, but the Comic Store Guy from the Simpsons is Wade’s unnamed analogy for what any possible friendship outside the Oasis looks like and it’s the one thing that seems to truly disgust him. It’s Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura shtick about possibly kissing a trans woman, and it makes most of the story kind of painful to follow. (Eric Molinsky discussed this in some detail in a recent episode of Imaginary Worlds.)

The object of Wade’s affection, Art3mis, falls under the trope of manic pixie dream girl. She’s a little older than Wade, smart, funny, prolific, and out of all of his leagues.

The opponent is Nolan Sorrento, the head of IOI, a classic Evil Corporation ™, but we know from the start that Wade wins. The problem with this is that its history is written by the winners. Wade can justify whatever he did to help his friends and to take out his opponents because his was the righteous cause.

He also has all the cool and all the cultural knowledge that it takes to win. I think the 80s cultural milieus that make for the story’s back drop are its main attraction. Movies and books and video games people of a certain generation (mine) grew up with, even though Ready Player One is set in the future and its heroes are all of a later generation. (The developers of the Oasis, however, are children of the 80s.)

The cultural references don’t make for much of a story, though. They’re a wrapper for something resembling a quest. Hence the sort of significance of Wade’s Oasis handle. As a hero, he’s as flawed as any you’re likely to come across. He’s destined to win because he’s the eternal champion in his youth and his heart is in the right place (name a revolutionary whose heart isn’t, in that one’s own telling, though), and everyone else is inferior in some way, or missing the key white male privilege that he’s got. Cline could have stepped up his game and Spielberg could have done the same, but it’s the same pasty white hero who has to save the day. (Louder for the folks in the back: Not the woman, not either of the Japanese characters, not the one I’m not gonna detail because, spoilers. The white kid.)

In contrast with the other listening and reading I’ve been doing lately, it also fails key tests of relevance. One could say that Cline was writing precisely what he knew and couldn’t do any differently, but the fact is, he could have represented his hero as more heroic, there’s no reason to repeat the fat 30 year old in his mother’s basement line multiple times. One friend of mine pointed out that it’s okay for the protagonist to be unlikeable, but I think the problem here is that he’s unlikeable because his creator didn’t think the character needed to be any different. And perhaps the character is so close to the creator’s heart, that those flaws don’t seem like flaws. I’m not sure.

The real world vs. the virtual still winds up being about schoolyard taunts. The guy living in his mom’s basement is one of two or three that set my teeth on edge. The less said about them, the better.

There’s so much better SF/F out there that doesn’t give the game away from the opening. Because the competition in Ready Player One is based on video games and is (on one level) a quest, the fact that it relies on the quest token trope might be forgivable. Quest tokens are a way fantasy writers have historically gotten their characters from the starting line to the finish. You know the story line: The prophecy states that only the person with the characteristics of our hero who brings these hidden items to the meeting point will prevent ultimate doom. Think of Harry Potter collecting up the various deathly hallows. But it’s a motif that’s played out. Back when Michael Moorcock was getting paid by the word, it was fine. Again, I forgive RP1 this because the video games and tabletop role playing games that are the backdrop for the quest in this story all depend on these.

Looking at the story from the Arthurian quest motif may have some merit. As I said, I don’t want to give Cline too much credit in this department, but the book turns on a sequence in which Wade sacrifices himself in such a way that he might be out of circulation for a very long time, or very dead. While he planned carefully for the move that put him in IOI’s control, knowing that they killed his aunt and uncle and very probably one of his friends, the risk he takes is huge. In the world of Grail quest legends, there’s a pattern of the hero setting off in a rudderless boat in order to leave all in G-d’s hands. A quest can fail because the hero does something to take control of the situation. One could identify Wade setting himself up to be captured by IOI in this way. Was he leaving it all to fate? Not really, but the chances against the plan working were high.

Quest token

From that point forward, I was far more invested in what happened even though I didn’t feel there was any real growth on Wade’s part. It’s not as though everything is handed to him – he grows up in lousy surroundings, raised by people who don’t care for him, and finds his refuge in the Oasis. Where he thrives. The problematic aspect is that he sets his mind to things and generally succeeds. And keeps winning. When he’s behind, he finds a way to win. I never felt invested in his struggle, because there is no struggle. There’s no point at which he’s in true despair (except when Art3mis rejects him).

This combination of jumbled pop culture from a previous generation and detailed social structures that are both two steps ahead of now and two steps from the Middle Ages makes for a compelling setting. And the goal of preserving what’s good and moving it into something better is worthy. Another part of the Arthurian quest motif is bringing back a boon to society. As a knight in pixelated armor, Wade doesn’t start the game with any altruistic motive. He wants to get off planet Earth entirely if he can. It’s not amusing to me that this self-centered, immature use of great wealth is what currently drives Bezos, Musk, and Branson. Three overgrown, too-privileged white boys. As result of Art3mis goading him to think differently, he determines to make good use of the fortune winning will bring him.

On a certain level, the story has merit, but my saying this is like realizing there are songs by the Killers I actually like. I’ve actually looked for a translation of von Eschenbach’s Parzival, which I haven’t read in 30 years. (Interestingly, the freebie found on archive.org is Jessie Weston’s translation. Her volume From Ritual to Romance was one of the key influences on TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ which brings us around to Arthurian legend again.) The fact remains that Ready Player One is pure popcorn and the references to things that aren’t 80s pop culture are as paper thin as those that are. And the relationships are flimsy excuses for how actual humans interact.

Does it fail on its own merit (or lack thereof) or only in comparison with other books I’m reading these days? There’s so much good SF and fantasy coming out these days, that it’s a shame that stuff like this does so well. I had similar things to say when everyone was reading Dan Brown novels. There’s better popcorn and there’s stuff that actually makes you think. I say that it not only fails to live up to what it could have been, I feel somewhat had for the time I’ve spent on it. I wish Cline weren’t so enamored of his own cleverness. The possibility that there’s an emotional depth to his characters, grief and joy that are separate from simply leveling up or failing to, seems lost on the author.


* And I watched it again last weekend, and find it only slightly less troubling than I did a couple of years ago. It’s still fluffy. Spielberg still gave up the opportunity to make it better, but it’s different enough from the novel, that I was amused by it. And the whole Shining section is still mindblowing.

Ready Player One seen last weekend in 3-D, but not IMAX is fine on a popcorn level, to be sure, and I walked out well entertained, but there was a lot wrong with it. The quest token format is tried and true, but (in the movie’s favour) it wasn’t too obvious. Given that the plot is about finding things in an immersive video game, the format might actually be essential. The setup, given in a voiceover from the protagonist, was such that the first ten minutes were obvious to anyone living in the time line in which the story is told. It all could have been handled within the action rather than as exposition. In 2047, this is what life is like – people live in hovels and spend most of their time in Oasis, a VR environment where everything is peachy. Sort of. My point is, if you live in the period of the story, you don’t need to hear the setup, and as we don’t live on that time line, the experienced storyteller should get us where we need to be without the it. This alone would have made the movie more satisfying.

Side note: I’ve not seen the miniseries version of The City and the City, but have just finished the novel. The writer uses a bunch of terms in unfamiliar ways in the first chapters – some of them aren’t clarified until well into the book, but author China Miéville trusts his readers to follow him and we trust the writer that eventually all will be clear. Spielberg has never trusted his audience this way, and doesn’t surprise us this time either.

The hero, who uses the handle Parzival in Oasis, and Art3mis, the one who becomes one of his partners/love interest, are both good-looking white people. There’s very much a manic pixie dream girl aspect to Art3mis that could have been played with. Instead, the movie plays out the trope in the same way it’s been played out several thousand times before. And while her self-perceived flaw, a large birthmark, is an issue to her, it could absolutely have been a non-issue. The storytellers could have taken the opportunity to work with a more serious character-building trait (not to play the issue down, but it seemed superficial to me).

Ready-Player-One-Fan-Art-03192015

Ready Player One fan art by Carlos Lerma

The next thing that got on my tits was another missed opportunity. When Aech, a friend Parzival has within Oasis but hasn’t met in the real world, tells Parzival not to trust anyone in Oasis to be anything like they are in real life, ‘She could be a 300-pound dude named Chuck living in his parents’ basement,’ our hero responds with something like ‘Trust me, she’s not.’ The correct answer is ‘Not a problem.’ The director and writers could trust that the generation born essentially now might leap that hurdle. Might. And can. A little support from blockbuster filmmakers goes a long way.

Also, can we trust the audience to get that Parzival is supposed to be a knight in shining armor without it being spelled out by the pixie dream girl in the moments after they meet? Truly, they could have just let the names be the names and let characterization do the rest of the work. That’s what it’s there for. There was so much promise just in the characters’ names and they just threw it away.

All of that said, the movie has some truly meritorious bits. The whole sequence lifted out of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was fantastically well done. (Amused to read that the sequence in question uses Blade Runner in the book, but because Blade Runner 2049 was being made at the same time, it was off limits.) Working the new characters into Kubrick’s original film, the touches that were changed (the photo on the wall with the game designer instead of Jack Torrance, for example), the name of the movie theater – all very nicely done. And the viewer could get these little Easter eggs or not, and it didn’t matter because the sequence was created in service to the story. (My darling dearest, like Aech, ‘doesn’t do scary movies,’ and found what was going on easy enough to follow.)

The concept of IOI loyalty cells, where Art3mis briefly finds herself, is very cool, from a storytelling perspective. The bad guys buy up the in-game debt of players and then consign them to play games shackled in isolation, VR helmets locked to their heads, and earn in-game money until they pay off the debt – which they are never able to do. While the concept wasn’t overdone story-wise, there was yet another missed opportunity. Art3mis’ real-world player is in real danger, and real trouble, and there was a chance for the film makers to elicit real pity and fear for the character. The setup was there. The fact that the character’s parents had died in those cells gave an opening for the audience to really feel for the character. Yes, there’s a Saturday matinée aspect to this movie which is absolutely appropriate for the genre. In the old serials, the audience knew too that the hero would save the girl. But in 90-plus years of action adventure entertainment, there’s got to be room to grow that aspect of the story. And Spielberg could have been the one to do it. He knows how this is supposed to work. Remember Marian in Raiders of the Lost Ark? She was able to show off what it was like to be in mortal danger. Spielberg let her act. Her character didn’t necessarily grow from when we meet her, and we don’t get that much background on her, but when she was in trouble, we felt for her being in trouble. This is what’s missing in Ready Player One.

In the eight-minute video Kaizo Trap (which I absolutely recommend), a young woman gives her boyfriend a video game console and he starts playing while she does other things. Some hours later she comes back to find him gone. The TV then sucks her in and she finds herself (after reading the phrase ‘No Signal’ from the other side of the screen) in a Mario Brothers sort of game. She has to master the game and with every death she suffers, she regenerates. Life after life, she gets further into the game and finally finds her boyfriend. Despite the length of the video, we somehow understand that this journey takes the character years as she has to master more and more to get to the end. (And for those who have seen Ready Player One, the goal in Kaizo Trap is to win, not just to play.)

The whole thing is very dark and has no dialogue (in that regard similar to the first 20 minutes of Pixar’s Up, another superior piece of storytelling). When they do get back to their apartment, it has fallen into total disrepair, reinforcing how long the game has taken. I bring this up to suggest that the video game genre of movie-making has large spaces for pathos and the kind of storytelling that elicits pity and fear in the audience and can provide a certain catharsis.

There should be a version of this world that Ernest Cline (the author of the novel on which the movie was based and co-writer of the screenplay) and Spielberg’s team created in which the audience is trusted a little more. When Stanley Kubrick was dying, he thought highly enough of Spielberg to hand him the keys to the movie A.I. Kubrick had wanted to tell that story for decades on film, but the effects technology was never up to the task. By the late 1990s, the technology was there, but the ever-meticulous Kubrick’s time had run out. When Spielberg made the movie, he took all the subtlety out of the story. The whole thing was very heavy-handed. The characters were cutouts and the effects (again!) overwhelmed the story.

Listen. I loved the movie, I felt for the characters, the action was first rate. All of the references I did get? Fantastic. All the ones I missed? Didn’t matter. As I say above, I was well entertained. But Spielberg had such rich source material and characters that could have been far more interesting and interestingly developed, and an not insubstantial 175 million-dollar budget, but he just missed the mark. Again.