Ready Player One
As a strapline summary of this Spielberg-directed film, it's difficult to top the 'coruscating explosion of pop-culture eye candy' as used by Variety magazine. Ready Player One, about people's virtual escape from slum-like conditions into a fantastic online world, is a visual feast and sums up so much of Spielberg's film-making: great pacing, wonderful action, and an ambivalent morality that fails to explore the bigger picture.
Not to be all Marxist but let's cut to the chase: the story is set in an urban shanty town, an American dystopia of trailer homes built on top of each other, like Manhattan reimagined through the prism of garbage. With shades of Eminem's 8 Mile, and for that matter, Harry Potter, the youthful protagonist, Wade (Tye Sheridan) lives with an unsympathetically drawn aunt and her nasty, trailer-trash partner (played by the ever-villainous Ralph Ineson). Wade finds daily refuge from this bleak existence by entering the shared space of OASIS, a computer-generated virtual world where you can be whatever you want to be. And there, Wade wants to remain, like almost everyone apparently. The plot involves ownership of this virtual system, which is dangled before participants à la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the form of a series of virtual challenges. Good people fight bad in this simulation to overcome the challenges for the ultimate ownership of the system. With this being a Spielbergian Hollywood movie, you can probably guess which side wins, as well as what happens to the ugly, trailer-trash surrogates of the protagonist. But ultimately, what do the heroes of this film really win?
To this question, I wonder how Marx would have analysed this film. People fight over the opiate that allows them to ignore their reality, like junkies fighting over the needle. Forget the economic and material infrastructure and the forces that shape it; accept or ignore that reality as you see fit, and immerse yourself into the virtual escape. Never mind the dystopian levels of poverty all around: this is a film all about the superstructure and remaining within it for ever, like a Neo who decided to stay in the Matrix, or an Alice who opted to remain floating in a Wonderland dream.Is it just me who finds this message problematic? Or do I sit back and take it for what it is, as I did Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on Easter TV, as a children's film with just enough violence and visual splendour for every age group. But here's what I come away with too: Spielberg does wonderful popcorn movies, though even his most serious-minded movies are reduced to the personal rather than the causes. This never bothered me until I saw Ready Player One, but so troublingly ignored and accepted is the poverty in the story that it makes me wonder: are these really your limits, Mr. Spielberg, concerning what matters in the world? How do your characters exist outside the game of OASIS? What do they do for a living, while living in this squalor, if they're constantly immersed in this game? Because as Jesus might have said, in a whisper, sitting next to me and Karl Marx in the cinema today, Man cannot live on virtual reality alone. Decent, insubstantial entertainment, to summarize this latest Spielberg movie, but one that Jesus and Karl over popcorn would have questioned, I suspect.