Okay, in this article I will be dissecting the film Ready Player One.
I will not be discussing the book, which I have not read. What I have to say is directly related to significant plot elements. I am not even trying to avoid spoilers.
Be advised. I will be talking about what happens in the course of the film in detail, giving away pretty much everything. If you have not seen the film and intend to, read no further.
HERE ABIDE SPOILERS
Okay, so a brief overview.
The main character lives in a near future dystopia. He spends the majority of his time in a multiplayer virtual reality video game and sees this as normal–pretty much everyone he knows does so as well. Presumably somebody, somewhere, is spending enough time in the real world to keep the electricity and water flowing, as well as growing food, but those things are of no interest to the characters.
Instead, they spend all of their time trying to win a contest in the game that was set up by the game’s creator. Winning this contest is seen as their only way out of their abject poverty, although, to be honest, no one seems concerned about the basic necessities of life or being able to afford gaming gear or paying for internet and game world access. No one seems hungry or homeless or lacking in medical care. They buy virtual goods with virtual money, which seems to be fairly easy to get. Real world money seems irrelevant to the story.
I am willing to accept the “plucky underdogs go for the big trophy” plot–that’s a perfectly workable story basis and has been used for sports movies ad infinitum as well as other contests from spelling bees to BBQ cookoffs.
However, there is particular tone required for that kind of movie, and Ready Player One loses that pretty quickly. The idea that the Evil Corporation is using scads of minions to try to win is part of the trope. But then Evil Corporation uses their corporate drones to set charges and blow up the main character’s neighborhood.
This is no longer about a video game. Now we need to escalate things from the “you pesky kids” level to “call the fucking FBI!”
(“Oh, but the Evil Corporation is much too powerful for the police to arrest the CEO!” Yeah. except that is exactly what happens at the end. Why not drop a dime on Evil McEvilFace as soon as he kills all those people instead of waiting until after you win the contest? And, oh, while you’re at it, how about staying off the computer long enough to arrange a funeral for your only living relative?)
“Oh, look, Wade, everybody you know has just died in a fiery explosion!”
“Yeah, bummer. So, you wanna play the game some more?”
At this point I’m done with the movie. Sadly, the movie isn’t done with me. There are two more magic keys to get, one of which involves going through a haunted house based on Kubrick’s The Shining in search of true love. Or something.
I’m way past caring who wins the contest, though. The problem, for me, was a profound mismatch of tone. The “gee-whiz, isn’t this fun!” OASIS sequences (which make up most of the film) clashed with the “evil corporate dystopia” real world segments, and the clashing grew worse the longer the film went on.
And the supposed message at the end of the film–that people should relate to other people in the real world and friendship and stuff–ran at cross purposes to the two hours than went before it. All of the fun, exciting, important events of the movie took place in VR. What’s more, the real world den that the character’s created to cuddle in looked a lot like a cheap imitation of the VR world. Not to mention that the VR “deaths” (people losing their avatars) were treated as far more significant that real deaths in the real world.
And Wade’s big plan when he gets control of the company? Don’t do anything that might make money–no ads, no charging for access, drive away the one company that is monetizing the OASIS. Just keep trading virtual money for virtual stuff, because the real world–that place with electricity bills and employee salaries and rent and overhead–doesn’t matter.