The New in Review: READY PLAYER ONE

Steven Spielberg’s most recent blockbuster has been fraught with controversy, most of it warranted, owing largely to the author of its source material Ernst Cline. Ready Player One, the novel, inspires little to no praise and it left the film at a great disadvantage when considering that Cline was involved in the film’s screenplay. Yet the latter presents itself as something close to a grand masterpiece when compared to the written version’s insufferable form. The film is not without its quite considerable faults, particularly in its uncritical assessment of its dystopic future which I will speak to later, but nor is it without significant merit. It is this I wish to elaborate on now.

As an aesthetic and formal exercise, Ready Player One’s merits are undeniable. The CGI is beautifully realized and Spielberg is operating on a simply spectacular formal level, akin to and perhaps even beyond the kinetic liberation animation has given his filmmaking in recent years. In this timeframe, it is The Adventures of Tintin and The BFG that form the clearest parallels and contrasts with Ready Player One. Like Tintin, a considerable portion of Ready Player One was shot in computer enhanced motion-capture, yet the most recent work feels of a different sort; bearing developments when compared—strangely—to Tintin’s pure digital photography and the purported total freedom that accompanies the animated image. What then is this difference? How is it that Ready Player One feels more liberated in its image-making than animated filmmaking?

I propose that among a host of valid reasons, one is in Spielberg’s expert deployment of the reality-spanning and -blurring cross-cut that constantly shifts the viewer between the corporeal and coded realities of the film. The effect of this is not simply to have perfected the effects and consequences of an editing technique and its use in film (e.g a car crash in physical reality implies movement and change in digital reality), it more richly explicates the coincidence of material and digital opposites in an ontological sense (i.e. in questions of being or what is ultimately real). This becomes even more notable when it is compared to the entirely motion-captured digitality of Tintin (i.e. total freedom is realised in an image liberated from a body) and The BFG’s positing of identicality between material and computer-generated bodies and spaces (i.e. bodies and digital images are equal and may share environments).

In Ready Player One, these formal and technological innovations and techniques, as well as the subtlest details in and implications of the design (e.g., Wade wears and removes his human “skin” within the OASIS, while Artemis bears Samantha’s birthmark in the final act), gesture toward an unspoken development of ideas in ontological matters that appear to be implicit in Spielberg’s most recent blockbuster efforts, and digital cinema and animation more generally. The film mobilizes the break we experience between ourselves and the digital worlds we traffic in, recognizing that—unlike The BFG—they are not fully intertwined and yet still suggests that there is no binary between body and code, there is no “real” world that is real over against another. A Manichean approach to what is proves false, as one senses motions toward a shared realism in which distinct ontological modes (e.g. bodies and code) coalesce and inform the other. This is, of course, clearest in the denouement when Halliday appears to now live as digital human, less a ghost in the machine and more a man of body-code—but is equally present in more inocuous moments such as the implcations of i-R0ck’s neck crick or a woman falling off her sofa, in that the consequences of both are real and varied in both physical and virtual space (e.g. movement in virtual space so that one may be seen in the physical world). It is then to say that the film’s attention to these co-implications explores the rich ways in which cinema may present questions of being and reality on screen, capturing its multiplicity rather than singularity. Beyond the digital-corporeal enmeshment of The BFG or the unitary digitality of Tintin, Ready Player One communicates that the “second life” of digital existence really is a second life; with the world-code relation not at all a duality (i.e. one is more real than the other) and much more than dipolar (i.e. only the two realities of the material and digital have primacy or importance), but one line in an abundance of fully real world-[x] relations.

However, I cannot but adjudge the above reflections to be somewhat incidental to the film. These ideas, despite their curiosity and richness (e.g. reality isn’t one but multiplicitious, the field of possibilities for life is unlimited in space, affects and decisions span dimensions etc.), go unexplored and to the extent that they might bear radical or progressive conclusions—or, simply, find themselves present in subtext so as to form a genuine interpretive possibility—it is apparent that the film is otherwise consciously opposed to non-traditional and radically novel ends. The dominant content makes this clear, for just as Neil Bahadur makes the provocative (and to my mind entirely correct) claim that another recent (and otherwise totally unrelated) film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, is “merely of the present” in relation to the innovation of its historical influences (Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil is a Woman among others), it seems quite apt to assert that Ready Player One is merely of the past. It acts almost entirely as a monument to what many desire to be prologue, denominating it all a positive value: insipid masculinities, disaster capitalism, humanism, social stratification, and class struggle become in its images and text explicit goods. Dialectics, as a mode of analysis of cinema, would have us understand and conclude that these reactionary concepts bear tacitly their own negation, thus moving the film and its concepts to a more concrete stage of theoretical and lived complexity. Yet, abandoning the above reflections and praise appears wise for the film is near useless as a vehicle for such notions, it cannot carry them. The sort counter-interpretation provided here or in dialectics only goes so far when the film finds its joy in regression—the truth of nihilism as such.

With this nihilistic joy in mind it is hard not to recall Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and the basis his form has laid as a vehicle for narrative cinema. The precision of Spielberg’s cross-cutting—the Griffithian innovation par excellence—and the effect It has on the film’s movement is none too surprising, in that the formal assurance Spielberg brings has a double function implicit to the form-content relation. For just as on the one hand the cross-cutting is what truly makes the film operate, progress, and prove undeniably exciting in its development; it is also on the other what draws out the absurdity of the film’s narrative ellipses, breaks in temporal and spatial logics, and the values on display that almost befit the Victorian era Griffith so adored.

The drama and movements made in between the discoveries of the second and third keys render aspects of this quite visible: the viewer is whiplashed between a tragedy of mass murder that is instantly forgotten for romance, as in and out of game events totalling hours or days transpire in the space of minutes (e.g. Aech travelling to Columbus from somewhere after receiving a message from Samantha about the IOI assault minutes before; IOI finding the location of the third key even though the second clue had just been cracked). The double function would have us understand that the role of such astute formal assurance in narrative cinema exists, both generally and very much in this film specifically, to make amends for a disjointed, clunky, even simply terrible screenplays. While it borders on rare to see such an extremely well-realised example of this problem put before global audiences for consumption, it should be more disturbing to note how the film acts as a glaring reminder of the role cinematic formal excellence has in popularising and rendering assimilable morally dubious content. For it is here that Ready Player One truly underlines and broadens accusations of “mere pastness”, as the film in its most technical advancements finds all of its excitement generated in editing decisions perfected 103 years ago. Decisions made not simply to make an unwieldy plot digestible, but to reignite mass discrimination and racist violence in a work of nostalgia-laden, race-baiting propaganda.

To this end it is worth noting that in the films of Spielberg’s late period questions regarding the political life of America have, in some sense, taken on an overt and perhaps renewed importance. Yet it is arguable that it is in Ready Player One that political content comes to the forefront in ways it has not throughout the last decade or more. Indeed, as a vision of dystopia the film cannot really be considered as anything other than terrifying in how it imagines the absolute evacuation of class consciousness from the American citizenry, as the viewer is given a litany of all too imaginable horrors: debtors’ prisons; armed divisions of private corporations; domestic corporate terror; and a people who more than ever dream only of wealth and escape, who accept poverty as a justifiable fact, and simply cannot imagine a concept such as wealth redistribution. Yet the true horror of the film is not that it presents such realities, but that it accepts their reality and responds to each with repeated silence or humour. This yawning ambivalence is borne out on numerous occasions as one sees that for every obvious and uninterrogated question the OASIS bears out as a mode of biopolitical pacification, a comedic beat and act of humanisation is gifted to CEOs and their lackeys; even as we see them actively behave as mass murderers and slavers. Abject failure of this sort must surely lead one to reflect on the true substance of a “political” late period when a film such as this sits alongside, in its uncritical reprehensibility, the supposedly thoughtful and celebrated works of Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, and The Post.

Coming full circle, one is inclined to say that while a deliberation over what is real appears to motivate the film, it should do little but to underscore Read Player One‘s cynicism, reactionary function, and moral decrepitude. It means little to state that reality is the only place one could “get a decent meal” when it seems almost impossible that anyone in the America of the film could even afford food. It means nothing at all when the trillionaire who designed this technology of oppression and impoverishment offers it as wisdom. In the very late capitalist hell of the film—wherein the greatest crooks, murderers, and villains are busily redeemed over and over to the point they are shown to be moved by the tears of a fanboy made trillionaire; conservatism is adjudged to be the proper site of “rebellion”; and cinematic form is the vehicle by which the audience is asked to “go backwards really, really fast” and digest both the values and self-expiating logics of a criminal past, present, and as yet unrealised future—the only possible conclusion should be one that fixes the almost tangible likelihood of this fate firmly in the mind and denounces the productive relations the film accepts and valorises as laudable and normal. A total re-evaluation of and reckoning with realities as they are now known would not end in taking a break from digital life on Tuesdays and Thursdays, it would see an overlapping and interconnected multiplicity of realities linked across ontological modes each and all affected by changes in the others. The end of trillionaires, wholesale wealth redistribution, and full common ownership of a reality blurring capitalist technology of oppression are the beginning of the end of this hell, in body and code.

Matthew McCracken
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Matthew McCracken

Lives and works in China where he teaches English, watches movies, and fails to finish the books he starts to read. ☭
Matthew McCracken
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