OK, We Need to Talk About Ready Player One

Fans of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One have been waiting on a film adaptation of the book since it hit shelves in 2011. Actually, considering the film rights to Cline’s story were sold to Warner Bros. before anyone had flipped a single page, some folks have been anticipating the movie a lot longer than they waited for the novel. Now, the wait is over. Ready Player One is here.

But a lot has happened in the nearly seven years since Cline released his virtual-reality-filled geek fever dream. For one, VR, which felt like it was still decades out when Wade Watts put on his goggles in RPO, is now very real and present in many homes. (There is no virtual OASIS where people spend most of their days, though.) For another, the idea that money could be digitally mined like it is in the OASIS was only feasible in the minds of a few Bitcoin believers; today it’s not uncommon to find athletes and celebrities waxing poetic about cryptocurrency. But more than anything, the cinematic landscape and what audiences are looking for at the multiplex has shifted—2011 was the year of Ryan Reynolds’s Green Lantern, Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, and J.J. Abrams’s Super 8; now movies like Wonder Woman, Black Panther, and Reynolds’s Deadpool rule the box office and Rotten Tomatoes while Snyder’s Justice League, well, doesn’t.

But that’s just the scenery. Ready Player One is still, after all, helmed by Steven Spielberg, the guy who served as creative director for the childhoods of almost everyone in the movie’s target audience. If anyone could turn Cline’s collection of pop culture references and videogame narrative mechanics into a crowd-pleaser, it’s him. Did he pull it off? WIRED editors Peter Rubin and Angela Watercutter, who have together been covering VR and Cline’s work for years, are here to hash it out.

Angela Watercutter: So Peter, I want to give you the mic as soon as possible because I just finished reading your great review of Ready Player One, but I want to quickly say I was very nervous about this movie. I’ve known Cline since I fact-checked WIRED’s feature on his movie Fanboys and always enjoyed talking to him. I liked Ready Player One when I read it, but in the intervening years my views and perspectives on gamer culture, virtual reality, and social media have changed a lot. And I’m probably not the only one. I guess I was just worried that the ideas and pop culture references in RPO that were amusing in 2011 would be groaners now. So when you saw the film at South by Southwest and reported that it wasn’t terrible, I was relieved. And when I saw it myself, I was glad it offered up some moments of joy, even if I didn’t love it on the whole. If anything, it didn’t make me nostalgic for the things it references—Iron Giant! Freddy Krueger! “It’s fucking Chucky!”—so much as it made me miss a time when referencing them still felt novel. But I’ll come back to that. First I want to talk to you about VR. As the man who literally wrote the book on it (handling your shameless plug for you!), what did you think of how the film presented the future of virtual reality?

Peter Rubin: First off, my publisher thanks you for the plug! Second, I CAN’T BELIEVE I FORGOT TO MENTION CHUCKY IN MY REVIEW. That was one of those moments that killed at the SXSW premiere. (To be fair, Cline lives in Austin … and Spielberg came out to introduce the film … and was escorted by Sixers. There were a lot of moments that killed at the premiere.) But you asked a different, and much better question, so let’s jump into it. Ever since Warner Bros. showed the movie’s first trailer at last year’s Comic-Con, I’ve been waiting for it with a faint sense of dread. Some of it was because the movie was marketed as a “pop culture holy grail” from the outset; some of it was because, like you said, my relationship with the book—and especially the worldview portrayed in it—had changed. (I think this is a refrain we’re going to come back to.)

But more than anything, VR has made unimaginable leaps since 2011—and in some cases, the sci-fi has already been outpaced. We may not have the X-1 haptic suits and flawless wireless headsets able to deliver hiccup-free room-scale experiences, but we’re well on our way. (And the omnidirectional treadmill that Wade Watts uses in his rig? That’s real, y’all). So in a weird way, RPO’s vision of the future undershoots reality, and winds up feeling like paleofuturist fantasy. Like, if you think we’ll still be rocking big-ass headsets in 2045, you must also be rocking a Miami Vice-era suitcase phone. That’s all outside the headset, though. Spielberg’s actual vision of the OASIS doesn’t feel too far off from where we’re headed—in no small part because the OASIS is exactly what inspired so many people who are working in the VR industry.

But what we see of the OASIS in RPO is also a tiny subset of what it actually holds—and how we’ll actually use VR. We won’t just be playing deathmatch, like Aech and Daito and Sho spend so much time doing. We’ll be socializing, dancing, unwinding, even seducing and being seduced. And I have a feeling that identity won’t be quite so guarded. On the contrary, in fact: authenticating who we are will be hugely important. There’ll always be places like Planet Doom, though, and the people who hunger for that are the people who will most unreservedly love the movie.

Enough vrambling. What jumped out at you?

Watercutter: This is obviously a movie about finding an Easter egg in a giant virtual world that also has Easter eggs in it—being released on Passover and Easter weekend, no less. Did you have any favorite hidden treats? Did you enjoy seeing the WIRED cover with James Halliday’s shook-looking face? I did. I love a good Room 237 conspiracy, so I enjoyed the whole Shining bit. I liked seeing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (They were there, right?) And seeing Gundam show up was a thrill. (Between this and Pacific Rim Uprising, that mech’s having a moment.) Also, she’s not an Easter egg, but I do feel like seeing Lena Waithe show up was the movie’s biggest thrill. She kinda saved the final third for me—even if, as you pointed out in your piece, she and the rest of the supporting cast weren’t given very much to do.

Rubin: That Shining setpiece was, for me, the best bit in the movie. (And I always love seeing WIRED covers.) It’s also the section of the movie that got just as much of a rise out of the 3D-goggled IMAX crowd in my local multiplex as the packed house at the SXSW premiere. And I can’t help but wonder if that’s because it was the rare moment that bothered to go deeper: yes, it was a reference, but this one didn’t fly by on a speeder bike or dissolve into a shower of coins like so many of the other blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Easter eggs that crowd the frame. When the High Five first entered the lobby of the Overlook Hotel, both audiences had a good laugh. The rugs! The typewriter! But then the easy gag turned into a legitimately great sequence that built on itself. It had comic relief, it had Shining deep cuts—it even had some of the only moments of genuine peril in the entire movie. If the movie sticks around in our cultural imagination, it’ll be in part because of that sequence.

Watercutter: I agree 100 percent. It was one of the only sequences in the movie that made it seem like Spielberg and Co. wanted to say something about about the ways culture imprints on our psyches instead of just making off-hand references. The entire Shining challenge in the OASIS played with the reasons why that movie sticks with viewers, rather than just making a “Here’s Johnny!” joke or showing the twins and then cutting to something else.

Rubin: Exactly—but I want to go back to your point from the very beginning: “it didn’t make me nostalgic for the things it references…so much as it made me miss a time when referencing them still felt novel.” All the way back in 2010—before Ready Player One, even—WIRED published an incredible essay by Patton Oswalt called “Wake Up, Geek Culture, Time to Die.” And there’s one passage that feels particularly apropos right now:

Why create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate on your iMovie? The Shining can be remade into a comedy trailer. Both movie versions of the Joker can be sent to battle each another. The Dude is in The Matrix. The coming decades—the 21st-century’s ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s—have the potential to be one long, unbroken, recut spoof in which everything in Avatar farts while Keyboard Cat plays eerily in the background.

So, with that in mind, I can’t wait to hear you elaborate. Proust had his madeleine, and many of us who work at WIRED and who read WIRED have our own versions of that: for me it’s the smell of our half-finished basement where I played Pitfall, or the sounds and lights (and, again, smells) of the arcades in my hometown. Now I can play that same game on my laptop—but without that extra sense-memory context, the experience feels a little hollow. Is that the kind of thing you’re talking about, or a larger cultural shift in the way we remember these formative stories of our pasts?

Watercutter: I know it’s kind of easy right now to riff on “What does this movie mean now?” but I do really wonder how I, or anyone else, would have received this if it’d come out at the same time the book did, or thereabouts. Like, it’s weird that a contemporary movie set in the future can already feel so dated. If anything, while watching Ready Player One I didn’t feel nostalgia for the days of Atari 2600 and Nightmare on Elm Street sleepovers, I felt nostalgic for the early aughts—before VR and Palmer Luckey funding anti-Hillary Clinton memes, before Gamergate, before I thought Bitcoin could actually screw up my retirement, before Prince died, before TJ Miller’s voice just reminded me of this, before even well-executed Say Anything references made me eyeroll. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I want to go back to a time when everyone was just oblivious to reality; society is much better off confronting these things head-on. It’s just that Ready Player One felt like it was made in a time, and for an audience that didn’t want to take its head out of the sand—or their headsets. Watching it, I was just perpetually reminded that, whether intentionally or not, it was made for audiences who might think that fighting for your right to play and winning the girl is the most important thing in the world (not, like, doing something about the poverty that made everyone escape into VR in the first place). (Alyssa Rosenberg has a really smart piece related to this over at The Washington Post.) That bummed me the hell out. Maybe I’ve just become a cynic, but that was my big takeaway—and I probably wasn’t the only one.

Rubin: I don’t see how you could have been! There are a lot of great ways to make a popcorn movie (and we’ve seen them, especially over the past year), but this seemed content to just be Good. Worse, it felt dated, and I don’t mean the retrophilia—I mean the worldview it reflects. Yet, despite the movie’s flaws, I’m glad it’s out there. I’m glad it’s doing well on Rotten Tomatoes (OK, reasonably well), and I’m glad to recommend it when someone asks me. In a lot of ways, it’s like VR itself: you know it has boundless potential, you just need to manage your expectations.

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