Steven Spielberg’s new popcorn blockbuster, which is also really a statement about popcorn blockbusters, finds itself inadvertently confronting more than one topical conversations right now, and it handles them with different amounts of grace and insight.
At the forefront of this film’s problems is the way it may be considered a step backwards in the progress that seems to have rapidly taken hold with #MeToo and #TimesUp. It’s a movie that imagines white male nerds as underdogs, oblivious (as many movies have been over the decades) of their obvious privilege.
My biggest frustration with the story is that the protagonist, Wade, known as Parzival in the online multiplayer escapist universe called the Oasis, is, himself, quite boring compared to the supporting characters around him. The problem isn’t so much Tye Sheridan’s performance as it is the way the character is written: Wade is presented as the special hero without there being anything particularly special or heroic about him.
In other words, it simply assumed in this universe that Wade would be the hero, in the way that all privileged people assume themselves to be in their universes.
In contrast to Wade’s boringness is the young woman avatar known in the Oasis as Art3mis. Wade has a major crush on her, but the movie shows her to be more than just the object of Wade’s shallow affections (a shallowness, in fact, that she calls him out for at one point in the movie, a moment that would have been more meaningful and satisfying if Spielberg and company had followed through more deeply on that critique).
But Art3mis, herself, is smart, spunky, assertive and resourceful. It is truly baffling every time she repeated insists that Wade is the special one, rather than herself.
Another of Wade’s friends who is equally more interesting than him is H, played with great fun by Lena Waithe, who broke out as the writer and star of last year’s “Thanksgiving” episode of “Master of None.” She gives a great “best friend” performance here, and is another character who is smart, funny, and bafflingly supportive of Wade as the lead protagonist for no apparent reason.
I have to mention, too, that lately, Spielberg has been employing his secret weapon, the actor Mark Rylance. In “Ready Player One,” Rylance is assigned a role that surprised me, given the gentle dignity he showed in something like “Dunkirk” last year, or in Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” but he knocks it so far out of the park that it is one of my favorite performances of any kind that I have seen in years. It’s a strong comedic role, and his timing and delivery could not be more perfect in every line. Rylance is just terrific.
But as much as “Ready Player One” biffs it on one cultural moment (and I don’t mean that as a “Back to the Future” reference — this movie has plenty enough already), the film finds itself entering another topical conversation as well — and this time, it’s on the right side of the conversation. That would be the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which personal data was used without people’s consent for political purposes, and which is causing a reconsideration of the passive, blind acceptance so many of us have given a social network platform like Facebook.
The film presents a near future in which American society has become so complacent with social technologies, and so eager to enter the mind-numbing void of online fantasy, that it has allowed corporations to amass a scary amount of power. Advertising is everywhere, a shot of wilted carrots suggest an environment that has suffered escalating deterioration, drones are delivering pizzas, and the world has gone to waste while everyone is hypnotized by their electronic devices. A corporation is the big bad of the story, and it has managed to use massive consumer debt to imprison citizens in a “loyalty center” and force them to work for them.
Honestly, that’s a pretty edgy premise for a big-budget blockbuster movie. And it’s not too far off from reality.
In 2013, Spielberg predicted the “implosion” of the film industry from blockbuster culture becoming so huge and sugar-coated — in other words, he warned about the kinds of movies he himself made so popular. “Ready Player One” reads like the Trojan horse equivalent of that same warning call: It’s a critique of pop culture excess, delivered in a package of pure pop culture excess.
For as many socially valuable ideas as “Ready Player One” has on the topics of social media and pop culture obsession, I’m not sure it follows through all the way on its premises. It could have benefited from a darker ending than it gets, for example, but Steven Spielberg has certain impulses toward the pleasures of a happy ending. This is the man, after all, whose greatest regret in life appears to be making a movie in 1977 in which a man leaves his small children without a dad in order to explore the mysteries of space.
But speaking of Steven Spielberg’s impulses, I have to say that for as much political head-scratching as “Ready Player One” made me do, the movie is still a masterwork of visual storytelling. The director is gifted at framing and choreographing action for the camera. For me, the joys of watching “Ready Player One” came so fast and so often that the negatives didn’t have time to catch up and shake me out of my dumb grin.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance, Ben Mendelsohn
Running time: 2 hours, 20 min
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language