I went into Ready Player One as blind as I could, considering how the movie has dominated the news. The hype was real, and the opinions were rampant. I couldn’t even get anyone to see it with me, because most had already written the movie off calling it “one big reference.” I understood their apprehension. It wasn’t as though gamers weren’t used to this sort of thing. Movies based on games typically failed and movies about games like Adam Sandler’s Pixels attempt to pander to gamer sensibility without any real understanding of just what it is that we love about the medium. A movie about games isn’t enough. Gamers can have good taste, you know?
It is true that Ready Player One is full of references and, for a movie that revolves around an “Easter Egg,” most of these references are clear –there isn’t much work that needs to be done. Part of this comes as a relief because I didn’t want to work to find all the references because it would detract from the narrative itself. Initial apprehension and a characteristic abundance of cynicism had me believing that this might be the point, though.
That isn’t the case. The movie’s love for the 80’s comes through in its soundtrack and aesthetic and the service it pays to video games is a mix of surface depictions of characters we know and love with an exploration of why we love games. None of it is as vapid as I was expecting and nothing is lost if a character goes unrecognized by the viewer -- most characters are only shown for fractions of a second, relegating them to the domain of gamer centric decoration.
Instead of being “one big reference,” Ready Player One aims to talk about games in general. A large theme in the movie is escapism and it doesn’t spend time condemning the practice which is a smart choice. Escapism is necessary from time to time to keep us from being overwhelmed by life. The film itself is escapism and, lo and behold, was helping me unwind from a stressful week. But the film would be vapid if its premise was simply “escapism is good.” Worse, it would be annoying if the premise was “escapism is bad.” Instead, it tempers “escapism is good” with an idea that complacency is bad and a person can’t run away from reality all the time. This message is ingrained in the movie implicitly but, in case audiences miss it, the theme is outright stated.
The direct statement and over explanation of themes and concepts manages to solidify my view that the movie isn’t pandering to gamers. It recognizes the passion, understands that terminology that is second nature to gamers is going to alienate or confuse a general audience, but doesn’t shy away from it. There are a few times, however, where things are perhaps overly explained and it feels as though the movie is saying “okay, we know most of you get it but let’s share the escapism present with some of the uninitiated out there.” One scene induces eye rolls as it talks about a clever hacking ploy that most would have immediately
Perhaps the cringiest moment, the one that gave me pause and did have a vague air of pandering to it was when a character dropped the word “noob.” We don’t still use that word, right? That dated reference is definitely an older person’s impression of the community. It just feels out of touch.
Ready Player One is a film that hits all the beats of the conventional “Hero’s Journey” in an interesting fashion. It’s classic in that sense but by filtering it through a gaming lens, it highlights the heroism and longing to do something big that is present in a lot of gamers. The Oasis, the name of the game that has enthralled the film’s world, is a place where people can be something. And within the Oasis, this idea of “being” has different connotations for different people. Players can be someone else or they can be something legendary. Identity and anonymity are explored throughout. Friendships formed online are emphasized. If the film does anything right at all, and I am of the belief that it does a lot, it is in the way it communicates that gaming may seem like a totally different style of being but, when you break it down to its core, the elements that are important to happiness and fulfillment in “reality” are also present in the life of a hardcore gamer.