In a review in The New Yorker, Richard Brody obviously channels his inner Slavoj Zizek when he writes, right off the bat:
Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” is not a video-game-centered dystopian teen adventure but a horror film, a movie of spiritual zombies whose souls have been consumed by the makers of generations of official cultural product and regurgitated in the form of pop nostalgia. The movie, framed as a story of resistance to corporate tyranny, is actually a tale of tyranny perpetuated by a cheerfully totalitarian predator who indoctrinates his victims by amusing them to death—and the movie’s stifled horror is doubled by Spielberg’s obliviousness to it.
The movie (based on a very similar, but not identical, novel of 2011 by Ernest Cline) is about Wade Watts, a teen in a somewhat likely dystopia, living in a terrible trailer park, who spends much of his time in a virtual reality world called OASIS, all bright, shiny and nice by comparison with a ravaged near-future reality.
In OASIS, Wade meets people (or their avatars, to be precise) and takes part in a massive quest to make himself a billionaire, focused on following clues about pop culture from the 1970s to the 1990s (but mostly from the 1980s) and about the early life of the late James Halliday, OASIS’ creator, precisely during that time-span. Halliday’s will was that whoever wins the quest will inherit his massive riches and control of OASIS.
Brody is a smart guy, and he can decipher Hollywood with the best of them. His key insight is that the movie depicts an entirely whimsical “paradise of nerd trends that reinforces a narrow view of the late twentieth century centered not on what mattered but on what sold.” To wit:
The seventies, eighties, and nineties of Halliday’s—of Spielberg’s—fantasy world is a time without Spike Lee or Jim Jarmusch or Lizzie Borden or John Cassavetes or the Coen brothers, let alone Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola; it’s an eighties without hip-hop, without punk, without Patti Smith. There’s no counterculture in Wade’s 2045 world, and there’s no counterculture or artistic alternatives in the imagined world of oasis, either.
I would say this scathing denunciation falls short: the true horror of Ready Player One is not in the selection of one set of nostalgia trinkets (Pacman, Blade Runner, Zork) instead of another; I’m not sure that having more Bruce Springsteen references, or Michael Dukakis campaign hats, would have saved the movie and the book or even made it better in any way.
A fetishist approach to commodities is the main feature shared by both the movie and the novel. In the end, all of this nostalgia and its leftovers are deployed like a cargo cult that tries to provide some sort of meaning beyond the obvious: that Wade wants to become a billionaire, instead of somebody else becoming a billionaire, in the zero-sum game that Halliday himself created.
The true horror, however, lies on the naked display of the uselessness of it all. Cultural artifacts are regurgitated, without context, and the creeping realization comes: they were crying out for context in the first place.
All that 1980s junk, the songs, the TV shows, the “Where’s the beef” ads, don’t provide any meaning by themselves, isolated in OASIS from the time and place where they were crafted. They were a response to specific stimuli, and specific needs of the ruling ideology and the markets of the time: one is struck by the overwhelming evidence that artists mostly don’t create for the muse but for ideological reasons.
Floating up in the virtual space of OASIS, the 1980s crap is revealed for what it was in the first place; if anything, the counterculture that Brody misses is saved from a similar fate, if only because it’s not in the movie at all.
Then there’s Hollywood’s ever-present worship of capitalism, and its naked promotion. In the story, all of Wade’s efforts are directed towards following Halliday’s instructions to the T, in order to win the money prize; the system can not be challenged: there really is no possible alternative to it. Curiously, at this point a story which feigns so much love for the computer culture of the 1980s and 1990s relies very little on cheats, that mainstay of such culture.(*)
In the novel, Wade’s final triumph makes him a billionaire but the ending is not straightforward: even as the real world remains, of course, fucked up beyond description, Wade reflects that, now that he can physically touch his girlfriend, he doesn’t have the immediate need to log back into VR. Or, as he puts it, in Cline’s perfectly stilted, young adult-style prose:
My heart felt like it was on fire. I took a moment to work up my courage; then I reached out and took her hand. We sat there awhile, holding hands, reveling in the strange new sensation of actually touching one another. Some time later, she leaned over and kissed me. It felt just like all those songs and poems had promised it would. It felt wonderful. Like being struck by lightning. It occurred to me then that for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had absolutely no desire to log back into the OASIS.
There is no reference to any emancipatory impulses by the newly-minted billionaire since one, even if one is a superhero who just took control of OASIS, is not supposed to mess with the delicate mechanisms of capitalism, destructive as they may be (isn’t the whole fetishist belief in market self-correction another key characteristic of the ruling ideology?).
In the movie, Spielberg makes a puny concession to political radicals: Wade and his friends decide to have OASIS shut down twice a week in order to force people into spending more time in the real world. This is a probably even worse outcome and, if Spielberg were a Catholic as well as a billionaire, should be construed as some sort of penitence imposed by billionaires on everyone else: flight to VR is nice and all, but twice a week you must see the real face of your ruler.
The particular overdose of 1980s motifs in Ready Player One, combined with the plot in which a single entrepreneur with a handful of partly imaginary allies must dodge all obstacles on the path to untold riches, also made me recall an offhand comment made by the Slovenian philosopher Zizek in “Enjoy your symptom,” when he cited Stuart Hall’s analysis of that most 1980s of all political movements, Thatcherism, and its political appeal, in the 1988 book Hard Road to Renewal:
The Thatcherite interpellation succeeded insofar as the individual recognized himself/herself not as a member of some actual community but as a member of the imagined community of those who may be “lucky in the next round” by way of their individual entrepreneurship under Thatcher. The hope of success, the recognition of oneself as the one who may succeed, overshadows the actual success and already functions as a success, the same as in a TV quiz show where, in a sense, “taking part in it” already is to win: what really matters is not the actual gains but being identified as part of the community of those who may win.
(* To be fair, hacking has a role in both the movie and the novel)