Ready Player One hit theaters this weekend, and now we can all exhale.
The film adaptation doesn’t get nearly as lost within toxic fan culture as its source text. In fact, it appears, for a moment, to be barreling toward a potent critique of the book and the broader culture of the privileged, young white millionaire men of Silicon Valley. Unfortunately, it stumbles at the finish line.
[Warning: What follows touches on the final scene of the film — as the headline suggests.]
Ready Player One, for people who’ve evaded the existential panic attack it’s caused throughout film and nerd Twitter, tells the story of people who escape a pseudo-dystopian, not-so-distant-future Earth through a virtual reality universe in which anything is possible. In the book, the space, called Oasis, is dominated by nerd culture touchstones from author Ernie Cline’s childhood, but the movie is more expansive, looping in nostalgia for cartoons, movies and video games as recent as this decade. Fitting. In the age of memes and binge streaming, culture moves fast enough that it’s perfectly reasonable to feel nostalgic for Vine or the vanilla release of Destiny. This is to say, the movie (co-written by Cline) has been changed in ways that, consciously or not, make Cline’s work more accessible.
Similarly to the book, the movie is about saving and preserving the Oasis from those who’d do it harm. The heroes, through a series of flashy set pieces, hunt for an Easter egg hidden within the Oasis by its deceased creator. Recovery of the egg will reward them control of the virtual universe and its parent company, the biggest in the world. We understand these kids are good, because they want to prevent control of the Oasis from passing to an evil corporation that intends to cover it in ads in some form of futuristic net neutrality repeal. However beyond that immediate goal, their motivations — and greater plans for the world — are opaque.
What of the real world? It becomes clear early on that the fate of Oasis and Earth are connected. The evil corporation runs a scam that turns players into debtors into something approaching slave labor; simply stopping this company, the second biggest in the world, from becoming the first is good on its own. But the victory only slightly upgrades the status quo.
The most reparative change from book to film is a sense, diffused throughout the entire story, that escapism — both within virtual reality and our own nostalgia — isn’t necessarily good for the people of this future or our present. Sure, the Oasis is great, but eventually people unplug and return to their trailer stacked atop a half-dozen other trailers in smoggy Ohio. The real world and all of its problems don’t disappear when we binge The Simpsons reruns or buy a scale Lego replica of the Millennium Falcon.
After the film’s hero, Wade, and his friends find the Easter egg and win control of the company, it appears the film will have the obvious conclusion: Wade, now the wealthiest person on the planet, will say he’s seen literally everything there is to see in the virtual world, and he will henceforth use his money and power to begin restoring the tangible world. But that’s not what happens. Instead, we get the performance of doing the right thing.
As Wade and his girlfriend make out in his ritzy apartment, his voiceover explains that, under his ownership, the Oasis will be shut down on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Wait, what? The Oasis is a massive economy unto itself. People work inside the Oasis; they make a living there. Even those who don’t rely on the Oasis for their income rely on it for relief from a world with no clear path to betterment. Does Wade see himself as patriarch, deciding what’s best for the public, even when he clearly doesn’t know? It’s hard to say because that’s where the movie ends.
When credits roll in Ready Player One, the film’s world isn’t better than how we found it. It might actually be worse now that, for two days a week, its residents have fewer opportunities to make a buck, and more time stuck on a planet that’s been all-but written off. For most of its run-time, the movie seems to be clearing its throat to make a statement about the danger of escaping into our shared fantasies. But in the last second, Ready Player One says more about the wealthy men, not unlike Spielberg and Cline, who may have good intentions, but inevitably mistake the opulent world they live in for the world in which the rest of us live.