This article contains Ready Player One spoilers.
By now, if you are a geek of a certain age, you have seen Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. Perhaps if you really like to wear your nerd bonafides on your sleeve, you’ve seen it multiple times and also read Ernest Cline’s bestselling novel of the same name. To be sure, it seems the world’s love affair with the 1980s continues to smolder, as Spielberg is enjoying his biggest hit in 10 years with what’s poised to be a $53 million opening.
And there is a lot to enjoy about Ready Player One, from how Spielberg reinvented the movie as a slick love letter to the kind of popcorn entertainment he defined so many decades ago, to just the sheer volume and breadth of its references and easter eggs. Personally, I have a real affinity for the director’s tribute to his mentor and rival, Stanley Kubrick. Even so, one should take a pinch of salt while enjoying this fantasy vision of 2045 conjured up by Cline and Spielberg. For no matter how rosy colored they make a future beholden to the past appear, there is something rotten in the state of VR Denmark.
Of course Cline and Spielberg are faintly aware of this too. Cline’s novel features protagonist Wade Watts bemoan early and often the world left to him by his parents and ancestors (us) as one falling apart. In the film, Wade laments, “People stopped trying to fix problems and started just trying to outlive them.” In the book, Wade is downright angry at the literal dump he was born into with the Stacks and the God in Heaven that he doesn’t believe exists; plus everyone else in-between. Except for James Halliday, of course.
While the film and book also both allude to Hamlet’s disdain for a frivolous Danish court by naming the central nightclub of the story “The Distracted Globe” (Act I, Scene 5 of the Bard), it is a mere equivocation. They both might find this globe overly distracted, but they wish to glorify the person most responsible, Jimmy Halliday and his OASIS. Without his invention, an entire global population would be left to stew in the rotten hand they’ve been dealt… and maybe try to fix it, but with the OASIS, all currency, commerce, and concern about tomorrow have been transferred to his VR paradise. Let the Stacks pile up.
Not all of the characters in Ready Player One are quite so apathetic as that. In fact, Art3mis’ goal on the page is to inherit Halliday’s $500 billion and use it to start fixing the ills of the world, which in 2045 only look like exponentially worsened variations of our own: climate change, overpopulation, famine, and income inequality. But the fact that she needs to be the one to do that with the richest man in the world’s estate gets to the real underlying horror of Ready Player One, which both Cline and Spielberg are all too happy to ignore: James Halliday is a monster.
further reading: How the Ready Player One Ending Improves on the Book
That’s right the seemingly benign creator of a relatively inexpensive and heightened form of social media, and person who only wishes to pass it on to someone as equally egalitarian as himself, is a greedy, miserly, selfish fiend who is every bit as self-centered in his desires as the story’s villain, Nolan Sorrento. The key difference being what Nolan Sorrento covets is money, and what drives James Halliday is nostalgia. While he never directly murders anyone, he is willing to let a whole world collapse, just so we all obsess over the same things he is so passionate about: movies, television, video games, inanimate objects, impossible-to-replicate memories, and anything and everything from a world gone by, except for the people who inhabited it.
In the book, and especially the movie, Halliday (who’s beautifully played by Mark Rylance) is romanticized as some kind of eccentric genius with the vision of Steve Jobs, the technical brilliance and social skills of Steve Wozniak, and the magic of Willy Wonka. And to Cline’s credit, there is more of an ugliness there too in the way, like Jobs, he’d belittle and torment employees. Yet his most defining characteristics—his passion for the OASIS and his mementos of youth—are celebrated, even though the seeds are plainly placed on the page as to how toxic this really is.
During the very first sentence of Cline’s novel, Wade Watts gushes, “Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the contest.” Wade’s of course referring to the contest designed by Halliday to find a worthy heir to his nearly trillion-dollar OASIS empire. But after all the gaping and fawning over Halliday’s brilliance by our narrator, including at his questionable ‘80s dance moves, eventually Wade concedes, without knowing it, the real purpose of the contest:
“The Hunt, as the contest came to be known, quickly wove its way into global culture. Like winning the lottery, finding Halliday’s Easter egg became a popular fantasy among adults and children alike… The only thing Anorak’s Almanac seemed to indicate was that a familiarity with Halliday’s various obsessions would be essential to finding the egg. This led to a global fascination with 1980s pop culture. Fifty years after the decade had ended, the movies, music, games, and fashions of the 1980s were all the rage once again. By 2041, spiked hair and acid-washed jeans were back in style, and covers of hit ‘80s pop songs by contemporary bands dominated the music charts. People who had actually been teenagers in the 1980s, all now approaching old age, had the strange experience of seeing the fads and fashions of their youth embraced and studied by their grandchildren.”
Halliday’s business partner, Ogden Morrow, more succinctly sums this up later in the novel as, “Jim always wanted everyone to share his obsessions, to love the same things he loved. I think this contest is his way of giving the entire world an incentive to do just that.”
And that right there is both what is so chilling and humorous about Ready Player One: It is set in a dystopia where one man tries to bend all of global culture to live in the hermetically sealed bubble of his own arrested development, and the story is completely oblivious to how nauseating that is.
As Cline would be in the same generation as Morrow and Halliday, it is easy to imagine he might be pleased to see grandchildren dressing like the cast of John Hughes movies. However, the prospect of robbing a future generation of their own culture and identity, until even their popular music is just a pale imitation of their grandparents’ glory days, also robs them of a future. They’re caught in some horrible time paradox like Marty McFly.
Instead of devoting his considerable resources and brilliance to help improve a planet that descended into the dumpster fire that Wade Watts was born into, Halliday created a glorified opioid for the masses. The ancient Romans called their gladiatorial games “bread and circuses” for the mob of Rome, and Halliday created a bread and circus that was 24/7 and infinitely more addictive. And then in his final days, he figured out how to use it to manipulate children into reliving his own youth.
So it is in this context we meet Wade Watts, who in the book watches the same sitcoms as Halliday (Family Ties), memorizes the same movies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), and listens to the same music (they’re both crazy about Rush). As someone who loves two of those three things—who really enjoys 1980s sitcoms if they weren’t there when they were new?—I still find this repellent. Wade has no culture of his own, just hand-me-downs and ghosts of a world long gone. He isn’t being taught to value history, he is romanticizing a world that never existed, which is as dangerous a version of historical revisionism as a South reared for generations on the fallacy of a noble Confederate gentry that’s become “gone with the wind.”
Meanwhile, it is left to Art3mis in the novel and film to be the only person fighting to improve things, even if she must also subscribe to Halliday’s fantasy of a Hughes-ian vision of the 1980s and early ‘90s, which in its own way is falling into the patriarchal structure of one man. For actual pop culture remnants of that era that appealed to women—say cartoons like Jem and the Holograms, anime like Sailor Moon, or popular films actually written, directed, or starring women like 9 to 5, When Harry Met Sally, A Room with a View, or The Little Mermaid—are unsurprisingly left in the dustbin of history by Halliday. That’s not his culture, so he curates the one where Molly Ringwald teaches Ally Sheedy how to feel good about herself by dressing to please the high school jock. That or they’re token, smiling love interests for the male’s adventure. (Halliday does include a visual homage to Heathers, but notably mutes Winona Ryder while allowing Parzival to quote Matthew Broderick in full from WarGames).
Yet Art3mis must live in Halliday’s vision, as will most of the world, if she actually wants to use his vast resources to change it. Meanwhile his great legacy is leaving behind a scrapbook that for five years forced everyone to wallow in greed, excess, and self-delusion. You know, maybe he did do the ‘80s justice.