Steven Spielberg only began working on The Post in late February – and shooting it in May – and yet ten months after that whirlwind creative process began, it’s now arrived in theaters as one of the year’s most acclaimed films (and leading Oscar contenders). Assembling such an impressive production in that brief time frame, replete with an all-star cast led by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, is a feat that few cinematic artists could pull off, and proves that, at age 71, the legendary director is still as formidable a behind-the-camera talent as ever.
Which is good, because his next project may be the most difficult one of his career.
I’m speaking about Ready Player One, Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, which was shot in late 2016 and has been in effects-heavy post-production ever since – and which will debut in theaters on March 30, 2018. Given how much of that tale takes place in virtual environments (and with outlandish fictional characters) that could only be created via computer animation, it’ll be the filmmaker’s largest foray to date into a digitally enhanced live-action realm. An adventure that spans vast make-believe universes culled from our collective pop-culture memory, Cline’s saga is a veritable smorgasbord of references to past TV shows, video games and movies (including some by Spielberg himself). It’s a saga in which the boundaries between the real and the unreal have been wiped away, replaced by a new world order that stipulates that anything is possible.
It’s also a terribly written piece of adolescent fantasy that, at heart, exemplifies everything wrong and repellent about modern nerd culture.
Cline’s story concerns a boy named Wade Watts who, in a 2044 America ravaged by war, energy shortages and environmental collapse, spends most of his days in a free virtual simulation called the OASIS, which was created by a Steve Jobs-like genius named James Halliday. When Halliday dies, he leaves behind a message revealing that somewhere deep inside the OASIS, he’s hidden an “Easter Egg” (i.e. a special, secret surprise), and the person who finds it will be granted his entire fortune as well as full control of the OASIS. This sparks a years-long quest by all of mankind to find the three keys that will lead to the egg. And it’s a mission that invariably leads orphan Wade, playing in the OASIS as an avatar named Parzival, to try to unlock the riddles and beat the challenges left by Halliday, all while both collaborating with a group of comrades (including a girl he loves named Art3mis), and battling IOI, an evil anti-Net Neutrality-style corporation that wants to find the egg and turn the OASIS into a profit machine.
On the face of it, Ready Player One functions as a serviceable tween sci-fi hero quest. However, it uses its premise as a means of reveling in the 1980s entertainment that defined Cline’s life – since, as it turns out, Halliday was fixated on (and made the OASIS a paean to) that decade, thus motivating Wade and the rest of his fellow treasure hunters to study and memorize everything ‘80s-related in order to succeed. The result is a stunted-adolescent story in which there’s nothing greater than being an authority on Family Ties, Dungeons & Dragons, WarGames and arcade classics like Joust and Pac-Man, to name only a few of the myriad properties about which Wade proudly boasts he’s an expert. To be a true champion in Cline’s novel requires an encyclopedic knowledge of the stuff that the author himself thinks is the apex of human civilization – namely, the video games and sitcoms and teen comedies he grew up adoring.
Ready Player One validates being the sort of obsessive-compulsive geek that views Comic-Con as nirvana, and reconfigures the nerd stereotype – a girlfriend-deficient loner who plays online games alone in his mom’s basement – into a peerless paragon of all-around sexy-cool-awesomeness. Wade admits that “Online, I didn’t have a problem talking to people or making friends. But in the real world, interacting with other people—especially kids my own age—made me a nervous wreck.” When it comes to Halliday’s favorite arcade titles, “To me, they were hallowed artifacts. Pillars of the pantheon. When I played the classics, I did so with a determined sort of reverence.” And later, during an argument with Art3mis, whom he has a serious crush on, he has the following exchange:
“She shook her head. “You don’t live in the real world, Z. From what you’ve told me, I don’t think you ever have. You’re like me. You live inside this illusion.” She motioned to our virtual surroundings. “You can’t possibly know what real love is.”
“Don’t say that!” I was starting to cry and didn’t bother hiding it from her. “Is it because I told you I’ve never had a real girlfriend? And that I’m a virgin? Because—”
“Of course not,” she said. “That isn’t what this is about. At all.”
Despite being a dorky kid who’s never gotten laid and whose entire existence is spent hooked up to VR gear and shunning the real world – he goes to school, hangs out with friends, “dates” and even orders food via the OASIS – Wade is treated by Cline as an ideal: a courageous, quippy boy who prevails against insurmountable odds because he’s watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail “exactly 157 times. I knew every word by heart.” Ready Player One is the pinnacle of nerd wish-fulfillment, one that coddles its target-audience readers with the notion that being an anti-social hermit is anything but an intellectually empty and alienating endeavor. On the contrary! It’s the way you become the most powerful person in the world – or, at least, the virtual world, where you dress yourself in Gandalf robes, fly spaceships, and be an invincible Han Solo wizard deity dork who’s beloved and revered by all.
That includes by the ladies, of course, since Ready Player One proffers the in-your-dreams idea that Wade’s geekiness is catnip to female gamers, who are naturally strong, beautiful and unable to resist the charms of a guy who’s literally shaved his head and locked himself away in a room for months on end to travel around virtual planets modeled after Firefly and the music of Pat Benatar. As Wade says about his darling Art3mis, “We talked for hours. Long, rambling conversations about everything under the sun. Spending time with her was intoxicating. We seemed to have everything in common. We shared the same interests. We were driven by the same goal. She got all of my jokes. She made me laugh. She made me think. She changed the way I saw the world.” Except, of course, that she doesn’t change his worldview at all; rather, his incomparable nerd wisdom is what changes her – specifically, into someone who sees him as actual boyfriend material. Which happens, after doing eye-roll-worthy things like this:
“Art3mis and I even teamed up for a few quests. We visited the planet Goondocks and finished the entire Goonies quest in just one day. Arty played through it as Martha Plimpton’s character, Stef, while I played as Mikey, Sean Astin’s character. It was entirely too much fun.”
As if all this fairy tale geekiness – playing classic coin-ops to unlock new missions; experiencing interactive movies from the protagonists’ first-person perspective; fighting large-scale battles full of John Woo-ish gunplay and Ultraman-style robots – weren’t enough to make Ready Player One an unbearable celebration of nostalgic juvenilia, the novel also turns out to be a clumsily composed book marked by its protagonist’s smarty-pants voice. Wade’s obnoxious know-it-all attitude permeates the proceedings, as when he expounds on his limitless – and greater-than-you – ‘80s-music expertise:
“I memorized lyrics. Silly lyrics, by bands with names like Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, and Pink Floyd.
I kept at it.
I burned the midnight oil.
Did you know that Midnight Oil was an Australian band, with a 1987 hit titled “Beds Are Burning”?”
Yes, actually, most people did know that, but thanks for asking, Wade, you self-satisfied little shut-in. Yet reading Ready Player One, it’s not Wade for whom one feels the most contempt; it’s Cline. Just as Wade uses his Parzival avatar to create a perfect version of himself, so Cline does the same with Wade – since Wade’s boundless, super-radical-amazing ‘80s erudition is really Cline’s, and something the author can’t help but brag about in detail. When Wade boasts about his virtual car (“my time-traveling, Ghost Busting, Knight Riding, matter-penetrating DeLorean”) one can practically hear Cline squealing with delight over the idea of owning such a fit-for-a-fourth-grader’s-imagination mash-up vehicle. Worse, though, is when Cline uses Wade to forward his own opinions on God and the afterlife (obviously bullshit, noobs!), or about sex, such as in this historically awful passage:
“I felt no shame about masturbating. Thanks to Anorak’s Almanac [Halliday’s compendium of ‘80s favorites], I now thought of it as a normal bodily function, as necessary and natural as sleeping or eating.
AA 241:87—I would argue that masturbation is the human animal’s most important adaptation. The very cornerstone of our technological civilization. Our hands evolved to grip tools, all right—including our own. You see, thinkers, inventors, and scientists are usually geeks, and geeks have a harder time getting laid than anyone. Without the built-in sexual release valve provided by masturbation, it’s doubtful that early humans would have ever mastered the secrets of fire or discovered the wheel. And you can bet that Galileo, Newton, and Einstein never would have made their discoveries if they hadn’t first been able to clear their heads by slapping the salami (or “knocking a few protons off the old hydrogen atom”). The same goes for Marie Curie. Before she discovered radium, you can be certain she first discovered the little man in the canoe.”
Even for someone who grew up in the ‘80s, and who loved many of the games and films that Wade himself reveres, Ready Player One resounds as the work of a man-child who – subpar prose aside – believes that his most cherished old-school cartoons, comic-books and video games aren’t just worthwhile; they’re all that matters, and should naturally be the cornerstone of society. It’s a lionization of immature things (and immaturity) as an end to itself, rather than as the building blocks of more mature – and worthwhile – creations. When, late in the novel, Art3mis chides her IOI adversaries for failing to figure out a puzzle by stating, “Dilettantes…It’s their own fault for not knowing all the Schoolhouse Rock! lyrics by heart. How did those fools even get this far?,” Cline once again makes plain that, above all else, he values those items prized by his seven-year-old self. Who was, like most seven-year-olds, a know-nothing.
In light of Ready Player One’s cringe-inducing regressiveness, Spielberg finds himself embarking on his own burdensome quest. From a purely logistical standpoint, Cline’s story is so awash in pop-culture shout-outs that the director’s adaptation will have to seamlessly amalgamate a bevy of licensed creative properties – as well as figure out how to handle the novel’s plentiful references to his own oeuvre. More onerous than those obstacles, however, is the book’s Peter Pan-ish infatuation with childishness, which comes coated in a stench of stale Doritos, Jolt Cola, and lowbrow smugness. Once the king of adolescent fantasies, Spielberg has long since moved on to (and seemed more comfortable) making movies about the grown-up world, and in order for his forthcoming project to transcend its rotten source material, he’ll have to find a way to turn a more critical eye toward the pop-culture relics blindly glorified by Cline.
And if not? Then for the filmmaker’s Ready Player One, it’ll likely be – to take a page from Cline’s own cornball playbook – “Game over, man!”