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"Ready Player One" surprises: not a technophobic dystopian after all

Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One was not a movie I felt particularly excited to see. The trailer showed a tech-reliant dystopia plagued by hunger and poverty, hidden behind a virtual-heavy-on-the-reality game called Oasis. It’s a classic, overrated technophobic argument—an exhausted “our kids can’t look up from their phones here’s where this will lead us” message. But, if my curiosity hadn’t gotten the better of me, I actually would have missed a wildly fun and clever film.

I can’t speak for why I had such poor feelings, only that I did. In all fairness, this might have been more of a personal analysis; the film bumped Pacific Rim out of its number one spot, making $53 million opening weekend. But, it’s worth questioning if that number would be higher had the film established a better reputation prior to the premiere. Despite critics loving it, the internet had a field day—or field weeks—poking fun at the seemingly grim, obnoxious depiction of technology. A friend who happened to be at my same screening also said she was more than pleasantly surprised.

Following Wade “Parzival” Watts (Tye Sheridan) on the hunt for an in-game easter egg, the movie, adapted from a book of the same name, bounces between the virtual and the real, blurring the lines into eventual extinction. The finder of the egg will win control over the game’s company and a huge financial inheritance. Expectedly, the quest is far from easy—when co-creator and fanboy extreme James Halliday (Mark Rylance) dies, it’s revealed he hid three keys in the game, only to be obtained after successful completion of various challenges. These challenges are, also, hidden. Pop culture and “nerd” references are everywhere in the story, used as vital tools and clues for the search, alongside trivia about Halliday’s personal life.

Although the foundation is there, the film never tackles the political or controversial head-on, avoiding ever actually taking a stance on the evils of technology. For a movie seemingly about that very tech, this might seem odd, but that's the surprise. Ready Player One isn’t about technology at all. In fact, it’s about humans.

Despite taking place in a dystopia, this isn’t a dystopian film. The background serves only as a visual and logical tool, a way to explain away society’s blind obsession with Oasis. It is best described, perhaps surprisingly, as a comforting coming-of-age tale where adults are dumb and teens thrive. Wade’s virtual squad of friends—Art3mis, Aech, Sho, and Daito—are real. Despite not knowing their off-screen identities until nearly halfway through the film, Wade trusts them with both his physical and digital lives, as they team up against a rival corporation hoping to take the game for themselves. Their gang is as solid as that in John Hughes’ famous The Breakfast Club, fighting against the system and all.

Those off-screen identities also reveal a necessary part of the growing-up experience. Save Wade, each player is revealed to be both the same and drastically different than their digital avatar in some way. The Oasis allowed the kids to find themselves, explore dreams and ideas. Parzival became Wade’s alter-ego, in a Beyoncé/Sasha Fierce kind of way. In fact, I wish Spielberg took the time to dive into this more, the idea of a virtual self feeling as real as your physical one is fascinating and has plenty of legs for creativity. Art3mis, or Samantha (Olivia Cooke) as she’s discovered to be, is insecure about a birthmark across her face. In the virtual world, she’s confident, independent and admired by players like Wade.

Halliday himself was overly fond of this escape, using his creation as an ode to pop culture and its importance in our world. As Wade and his friends learn more about their mysterious idol, his lack of social skills outside the digital realm are quickly uncovered. He used games to get the interactions and experiences he lacked in the world. Halliday considered his biggest regrets to be losing the love of his life and distancing his best friend and business partner. His in-game quest was built to reveal these things, to show the winner that life can’t be lived without relationships. When Wade then finds friendship and love along the hunt, the virtual shadows left of Halliday can’t help but smile.

Despite a theme being the difference between the simulated and the real, the film shows there’s still a place for escapism in society. As long as the lines exist. Once the identities are revealed, it’s easy to assume Wade’s crew would never have given each other a second glance if they passed on the street. But, the Oasis gave them a reason to meet, unite. The coming-of-age message being: if we can’t find ourselves in reality, then take it to the virtual—just remember to bring that self back into reality.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say the kids do win the competition, gaining control of the Oasis. But, the ending has received some criticism—they don’t use their wealth and power to fix their dystopian world, but instead decide to close the game two days a week. This lets it exist, but still encourages people to look at the world around them and exist in that too. I think, though, this ending encompasses exactly what the movie is about: friendship and teen self-discovery in a technological society. The Breakfast Club didn’t fix the entire school social hierarchy system. Ferris Bueller didn’t permanently change society to let kids stay being kids. They win their personal battles. They found themselves in the Oasis, and finally let those connections and growth happen in reality. That’s what this film showed, nothing more.

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