Ditching much of Cline’s world-building detail about life outside of the OASIS, Spielberg’s film creates a vision of the future that functions like a parody of Hollywood in its present form. A stagnant corporate machine that was built by dreamers who aged into trillionaires, the VR program has evolved into a capitalistic monoculture where consumers literally explode into fountains of money. The rules of the game encourage players to infinitely repurpose old intellectual property, but forbid them from introducing anything new. Intended as a universal touchstone that offered strangers a shared connection to a world beyond their own, the OASIS has reduced pop culture to a series of empty symbols, the faint haptic tap of second-hand feelings, a language without any love behind it.
Wade might know everything about “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” but it’s hard to imagine that he’s ever actually seen it. There might be movie theaters in the OASIS, but who’s going to actually sit there for two hours? Similarly, it’s more likely that Wade learned about “rosebud” from Halliday’s library — a vivid index of his memories and obsessions — than from watching “Citizen Kane.” Meanwhile, when Wade’s friend Aeth builds the Iron Giant into a killing machine, it suggests that she didn’t really internalize the pacifist message of Brad Bird’s animated classic. In a world where people can only communicate through the limited vocabulary of a stunted culture, a few details are bound to get lost in translation.
For all of its electric sense of fantasy and wonderment, “Ready Player One” is a dire prognosis of what it’s going to feel like when IP completely usurps the imagination that inspired it in the first place. The movie’s climactic plea for people to put down the controller and enter the real world is so half-assed that it barely registers, but there’s a relevant measure of truth to that threat of learned helplessness. Having a fantasy world at your disposal can be super dangerous when it causes you to start ignoring the real one beyond your headset. Giving audiences what they want makes it easy for them to forget what they need.
No matter how exciting it might be to see every single one of the Avengers in the same shot, or a “Black Panther” movie that inspires marginalized audiences while obliterating racist myths about the commercial viability of black stories, there’s something ominously OASIS-like about a mainstream film culture that’s limited itself to sequels, reboots, and/or comic book adaptations. As Wade says in Cline’s book:
The once-great country into which I’d been born now resembled its former self in name only. It didn’t matter who was in charge. Those people were rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic and everyone knew it.
Spielberg isn’t absolved from any of this, and he knows it. If “Ready Player One” is a more compelling film than it was a book, it’s because this version of the story is being told by someone who appreciates what it’s like to be in Halliday’s shoes (presumably the Nike Air Mag sneakers from “Back to the Future Part II”). Spielberg would have to be senile not to recognize the formative role that he’s played in the creation of modern fan culture (he’s repeatedly name-checked in Cline’s novel), just as he would have to be in denial not to recognize the role that he’s played in corporatizing it.
He knows full well that he’s could have populated “Ready Player One” exclusively with references to his own work and the movie would still be teeming with life. That the director went the opposite route, highlighting the cinema he influenced (or was influenced by) while almost completely eliding any explicit references to his own work, leaves you with the sense that something’s missing. It’s like a tour through the Louvre that skips the “Mona Lisa.” Spielberg might explain this away as a humble gesture (“I didn’t corner the ’80s market,” he told Entertainment Weekly), but the decision lands more like an act of self-erasure.
On one hand, the filmmaker doesn’t need to celebrate himself — we’re perfectly good at doing that for him. And it’s not as if his fingerprints aren’t all over this movie, from its preoccupation with never growing up to the insistent grace with which the camera glides down the tower of trailer homes in the Columbus Stacks. With Spielberg, you never have to find a secret room just to see his signature.
On the other hand, “Ready Player One” is a movie about a future where Spielberg is missing, and Hollywood’s profit structures haven’t made it possible for anyone to take his place. This is a story in which the bad guy is a corporate overlord who’s just trying to gain control over the geek universe so that he can exploit it more efficiently, and the good guy is an open-mouthed kid whose only fix to the stale addictiveness of the OASIS is to force everyone to log out for two days each week.
Like the current state of the film business, it’s a fight between the greed of the studios and the naïveté of their audience, and neither side is worth rooting for (at least not in “Ready Player One,” where both factions are completely daft). Wade just wants to play in his virtual sandbox, and villain Nolan Sorrento just wants to price him out of it. Neither side recognizes the raw potential of the OASIS — the pure joy of creation. Neither side has anything to dream about. Everything they know is just a shadow of something that came before it, their lives an emulator for a system that time and negligence has already rendered obsolete.
The only two options that “Ready Player One” offers its characters (and, by extension, its audience) are to pay more money for their vacuous escapism, or to spend a little more time in the real world. At no point does the film suggest that Wade is interested in — or capable of — fundamentally improving the OASIS, of recreating it in the image of he and his diverse squad of friends.
At the end of the movie, Halliday’s paradise is poised to continue in its current state, his references becoming the stuff of a static religious text rather than the fertile grounding for a new universe of infinite possibility. The kids of 2155 will still be hung up on the ’80s, if they have any culture at all. Judging by the wistful tone of his final scene, that doesn’t seem to be what the inventor would have wanted. Halliday ultimately surrenders to a generation that knows his favorite things inside and out, but has no inclination to create any new lore of their own.
Perhaps that’s why the story’s happy ending rings so hollow. Spielberg might be happy to profit off “Jurassic World,” but it’s hard to believe that he wanted us to be stuck on Isla Nublar for the rest of our lives. He’s articulating his anxiety about that through the only language he knows, the great director addressing a problem of his own making through a framework of his own design. To make a blockbuster that breaks free from the bondages of branding, Spielberg had to make one that fetishized the way they feel. The result is a movie that contributes to the same crisis that it may have been conceived to solve.
The movies have no future if they continue to memorialize themselves. As “Ready Player One” makes very literal when Wade enters the hedge maze behind The Overlook Hotel, we eventually have to escape the things that define us. We have to grow from them. Spielberg knows how much we love him, which is why he knows we have to let him go. The best and most damning thing you can say about “Ready Player One” is that it makes that prospect just a little bit less frightening.