At one point, I’m watching Mechagodzilla do battle against some Gundam mecha, and it struck me that this movie would be incredibly confusing to someone who isn’t a nerd at one point in their lives. If you’re not immersed in any aspect of nerd fandom at all, especially a specific kind of fandom that involves iconic characters like the Iron Giant, then the chaotic battle onscreen is completely meaningless to you. It’d be like watching two Olympians do battle without any foreknowledge of Greek mythology. So this is what Ready Player One boils down to: it’s a movie full of geek mythology. But there is no god of war or god of love. It’s just awesome and really, really awesome. Godzilla is awesome. Gundam mechas are awesome. And when they fight, it’s super awesome. Welcome to Oasis, a virtual world created by its Creator James Halliday.
Yes, he’s the Creator with a capital C. He is treated as the God of Oasis. Upon his death, he sent out a message to inform the whole world that he has hidden three keys throughout Oasis. Find those three keys and not only will you become the next God of Oasis, you’ll also acquire an insurmountable fortune. I think the movie said something like half a trillion dollars. It’s insane. But in order to find these three keys, you need to pore over Halliday’s life. You need to go through his memories and study his words and teachings like you’re a student of the Bible. What did Halliday once say? Something about him not liking rules? So in order to find the first key, you need to go and obsessively examine a moment in Halliday’s life where he once told his partner that he didn’t want to create more rules. He wishes he could just go backwards. Aha, says the hero of the movie! To find the first key, you must drive your car backwards in a race!
Enter Wade Watts, James Halliday’s biggest disciple. This 18-year-old kid knows everything about Halliday, and why shouldn’t he? He lives and breathes Oasis. He needs Oasis, and that’s because his life sucks. He lives in “The Stacks,” which is some some super ghetto trailer park in Columbus, Ohio. It’s a trailer park to the extreme. You have trailers stacked on top of trailers stacked on top of trailers. Ergo, “The Stacks.” Wade’s parents died when he was young, so he’s been living with his aunt ever since. His aunt is probably too busy trying to earn a living in this hellhole, so she barely gets to parent him. Meanwhile, Wade often has to deal with her revolving door of abusive, deadbeat boyfriends. As a result, Oasis is his only escape. Oasis is his heaven, and Halliday, the Creator, is the Holy Father.
Wade eventually teams up with Artemis, Aech, and two random ass Asian dudes to find the three keys, but we can skip over them for now. Other than Artemis, they’re not that important. I should add that Artemis’s name is really spelled “Art3mis,” but that’s obnoxious as shit to type over and over, so I’m sticking with “Artemis.” Opposite Wade are the “Sixers.” In the story, they are called the “Sixers” because these players do not have names. They are simply identified by their six-digit code. But of course, the “Sixers” are evil. They are led by a greedy CEO who just wants Oasis for their own nefarious deeds. In other words, the “Sixers” may as well stand for 666. They’re the fucking devil, yo. Okay, so let’s take stock. God is dead, so we need a new God. Satan wants to rule over Oasis and enslave people through… evil capitalism or whatever. Wade is the chosen son who can inherit Halliday’s kingdom.
Throughout the course of the movie, our heroes discover that the three keys are tied to mistakes that Halliday had made throughout his life. He regrets pushing his partner out of the company, he regrets not taking a leap of faith and confessing his love to some woman, and most of all, he regrets ever playing to win. The very last key involves playing an old ass Atari game in which winning is not the goal. Rather, to find the last key, you just have to have some ridiculous nerd knowledge about an easter egg. I say it’s ridiculous because the movie takes place in 2045. The only way an 18-year-old kid would know anything about Adventure, a game released in 1979 for the Atari 2600, is if he is a devout follower of God (which he is). And the movie is full of this nonsense.
When Wade meets Artemis, she asks him for his favorite FPS. Oh, of course it’s Goldeneye. Then she follows up and asks for his favorite multiplayer load out. Well duh, of course it’s slappers. But again, why the fuck would an 18-year-old kid in 2045 know so much about Goldeneye? Do you think the average 18-year-old kid in 2018 knows all that much about Goldeneye? But it’s not just him. Artemis is testing his gamer cred, so she too knows all too much about some hit game from the late 90s, well before any of these characters were born. This is all part of the gamer mythology. This is all part of a bunch of old ass nerds deifying themselves through varying levels of nerd fandom. It’s gatekeeping at its worst, and the story only tries to justify it by reversing the sexes. Instead of Wade testing the cool gamer chick, she’s doing it to him so it’s totally, like, equality yo!
Eventually, Wade acquires the three keys, and as a result, he gets to meet the Holy Father himself. Yes, Halliday still exists. Oh, he’s very much dead in the real world, but he still exists within Oasis in some substantial form. He’s not just an avatar, oh no! It turns out that God is not completely dead. He’s still dead in the real world, but he’ll remain in ghost form within Oasis for perpetuity. These stories about VRMMOs seem to have this weird obsession with creators. Sword Art Online does a similar thing. At first, Kayaba is the antagonist of the story, but he still lingers throughout the story long after his defeat. Hell, Kirito even respects the guy. It’s weird and bizarre from my perspective. It’s like these gamer nerds desperately want a god to follow even though they would more than likely claim to be super logical atheists in real life. But I digress.
Halliday is a preachy sort. He oh so bravely tells Wade that the real world is what matters. Why? Because the real world is real! After all, you can’t get a good meal in the virtual world! And this is a story thread that winds itself throughout the movie. At one point, Artemis gets mad at Wade because he’s not taking the contest seriously. To him, it’s just a game. But to her, it’s a rebellion! The evil company behind the Sixers killed her father, so she’s doing this in order to free the world from their tyranny. Early on in the story, however, Wade doesn’t give a fuck about the real world, so she can’t love him! The real world matters, yo! So when Wade finally wins the game and takes Halliday’s lessons to heart, what does he do?
Well, he does take over Oasis, but he shares his kingdom with the rest of his clan. Not only that, he institutes a rule in which Oasis is shut down every Tuesday and Thursday because, again, the real world matters yo! You might think Oasis is heaven, but the real world is the realest heaven! It’s the paradise that humans have come to neglect, but with Wade’s effort, we shan’t ever forget it! We then slowly pan across Wade’s new swanky penthouse apartment to find him making out with his hot gamer chick. Yeah, this is where it’s at! You can’t have a good meal in Oasis, and you can’t have sex either! Don’t be a virgin! Turn off the game and go find yourself a hot gamer chick too! Happy ending, right? Well, not exactly.
At one point, the bad guy tracks Wade down in real life. They’re downright evil, so they just want to eliminate the kid altogether. So what do they do? They detonate a bomb within “The Stacks,” and this takes out the entire column that houses his aunt’s trailer. Wade is spared, because he actually does his gaming in some hideout. His only remaining family, however, is dead. Not only that, all those people in that column are dead too. Hell, the surrounding columns are probably full of injured people as a result of this heinous crime. The evil CEO tells us, however, that nobody would give a shit if an explosion goes off in the slums. It’s just that bad in the real world. This is how the evil company can get away with literally domestic terrorism.
But does Wade really ever mourn his aunt? Not really. It comes down to one pithy line near the end of the film when he gets to fight the evil CEO in a one-on-one battle. He gets to sound cool by using revenge as a motivation, but her death never really weighs on his conscience. Not only that, it doesn’t even appear as if he really gives a shit about all those people who died simply because he made the mistake of allowing the bad guys to learn his real life identity. In fact, shortly after the explosion goes off, Wade is whisked away to the rebels’ hideout. Upon arriving, he gets to meet up with the hot girl gamer, confess his love to her, then dive right back into Oasis to find the second key. It’s just right back to gaming for Wade!
Near the end of the film, Wade raises an army to fight back against the Sixers. He tells all his fellow gamers that they need to fight back, or else Oasis will be corrupted forever! Now early on in the film, we learn that the vast majority of the population are gamers in this dystopian future. Like Wade, it’s their only escape from their terrible lives in the real world. If you die in the game, however, you have to start over. You lose all your items and upgrades. These gamers spend real world money to trick out their online avatars, so for a lot of them, their second life is probably just as important as their first if not more. For them to join Wade in this climactic battle, it shows a lot of sacrifice.
At one point, the evil CEO sets off an in-game bomb that kills everyone in the whole zone. Everyone. Yes, this includes himself. He doesn’t care if he dies, because he’s not invested in his avatar. Oasis is just a means to an end for him. Everyone else, however, loses their precious items. Not Wade, though. He had been given an extra life coin, which allows him to continue his quest for the third and final key. As a result, Wade gets to win. The masses all lose their precious avatars for him, but what do they get for their sacrifice? Sure, Wade is the lesser of two evils, but it’s not as if Wade will share his massive new fortune with everyone. This is not a redistribution of wealth. Again, he shares his new kingdom with his friends, but that’s it. All those people who joined him in battle get jack shit. Nada, zilch, zip, nothing.
But it’s even worse than nothing! As I’ve said, Wade instituted a new policy in which Oasis is turned off every Tuesday and Thursday, because the real world is where it’s at, yo! I mean, just check out his hot gamer girlfriend! But this blindly misses the point. The only reason Wade is such a devout follower of Halliday in the first place is because his life fucking sucks. The only reason Oasis feels like Heaven in the first place is because, again, his life fucking sucks. Now that he has a ton of money and a hot gamer girlfriend, of course it’s easy to say that the real world is where it’s at. But what does this mean for everyone else? What does this mean for the people who are still stuck in “The Stacks?” They don’t get to escape their miserable lives. Hell, they now have to endure their miserable lives every Tuesday and Thursday because their new God said so.
I watched the film at Alamo Drafthouse, and what Alamo Drafthouse likes to do before every film is to show a bunch of related footage to the movie you’re about to see. For Ready Player One, we learn a lot about the author of the book that the movie is based on and also Steven Spielberg himself. They’re both older nerds. They’re both pretty well off too. So now they want to do an ode to nerd fandom, but at the same time preach to their young followers that, “Hey, don’t forget the real world! The real world is important. Just look at us rich, happy fat cats because we never forgot the real world.” It’s this sanctimonious messaging that completely misses the point as to why people get hooked into fantasy worlds in the first place.
Ready Player One is pure escapism that wants to tell its viewers to stop escaping every once in a while. Heaven is not some virtual world, but a renewed appreciation of life itself. But in reality, Wade’s pilgrimage is hollow. His heaven turns out to be money and sex. His heaven is a privilege that no one else gets to share (aside from his friends). Wade does not liberate his people. He merely frees himself by proving his devoutness to the geek mythology. The masses got to avoid enslavement, but their lives remain as hellish as ever. God is dead and there is no heaven.