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Ready Non-Engagement

A brief Ready Player One summary to start: It’s about a geeky, pop-culture obsessed kid who uses his knowledge of geekdom to get the girl and push out the corporation seeking to control his virtual world – which in an of itself is run by a trillion dollar corporation. It’s the penultimate male fantasy, and drenched in culture that dominated author Ernest Cline’s book. All of that info is critical to get at the core of this story.

References are fun. Ready Player One is a collection of them. More than a collection actually. It’s an episode of Hoarders only no one is shoveling junk into a dumpster. All of this stuff is valuable, so they keep collecting. Pity the poor internet writer attempting to find each character for a viral blog posting. The Back to the Future Delorean rumbles with King Kong. Videogame icons the Battletoads charge into battle with the Joust ostrich rider. It’s escapism with a circled lower case “c” or upper case “R” invisibly hovering off screen.

There’s also a sense of disengagement, asking viewers to never absorb or understand their favorite culture. The Iron Giant, a pacifist robot, brawls, stomps, and fires lasers without much in the way of provocation. Ready Player One uses iconography for the sake of iconography, ignoring context. See the thing, remember the thing, have fun with the thing. Never mind the rest.

Were all the key players kids, Ready Player One would be near indiscernible from something like The Goonies

The greatest sin of Ready Player One is the world outside of this virtual reality. Trailer parks stack on top of trailer parks with rickety metal girders holding the unstable structure together. Graffiti covers every solid surface. Few buildings exist without some form of grave disrepair. There’s high crime probably, but no one seems to mention it. The world is so obsessed with an alternate reality, they forego their own. Maybe if they engaged with their culture and the messaging rather than listlessly watching it, that wouldn’t happen. Hmm.

When its over, the future world of Ready Player One (or at least the area in and around Columbus, Ohio where this all takes place) is still rotting. The pop-culture obsessed geek saved his own virtual world. Nothing really changes except in his own little bubble. Trailer parks still teeter on collapse. There’s an essence of narcissism, and at the center, the idea that engaging with corporate brands makes you a hero. Troubling.

Its fun. That’s undeniable. With Steven Spielberg at the helm of this one, Ready Player One carries a now exotic feel – the stock ’80s film the source book so wanted to be. Were all the key players kids, Ready Player One would be near indiscernible from something like The Goonies; it’s that kind of wayward adventure.

Missing though is a lot of the heart. That warmth Spielberg brought to say, E.T., never finds a home. Ready Player One has time to do so too. Surprising amounts of exposition is spent away from pop culture, running through a rudimentary good/evil tale that ends as every audience member into the references already knows.

Ready Player One isn’t anymore a waste of time than the things it hearkens back to. It’s empty and relatively soulless, never giving the creators of these things or character any real due. No one even questions why real world citizens chose the characters for their avatars in a world of infinite creative possibilities; certainly someone choosing the Joust ostrich to represent them in the year 2054 has reasons. Oddly, main characters decline to choose a pop icon for their own, despite their obsession.

One character relents at the end and mentions how Artemis (Tye Sheridan) needs lawyers. No doubt the makers of Ready Player One needed them to sort out licensing. That’s the reality of what these characters truly are: copyrights. Asking viewers to take them as is, broadly commercialized, saps a lot of the energy. Reality sucks, which in the end, is all Ready Player One wants to say.

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Ready Player One enjoys engaging with a flurry of pop media, never analyzing, just tossing references into the fold where they merge into a fair celebration of media.

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