There’s a moment when you’re about to meet a friend’s baby for the first time and you steel yourself. You hope, if the baby is seven shades of hideous, that your face doesn’t betray you. If it does, which it might, you have a question to answer: do I have a way home if I tell them ‘bout this Chunk-looking baby?
Such was my dilemma walking into a movie that celebrates nerds when all my friends are nerds. All. Of. Them. They all have collections. They all have encyclopedic knowledge of something. They all have a fan theory about “the” book/movie/thing. So, as you can imagine, I was standing in line for the celebration-of-nerd-culture-in-movie-form that is Ready Player One like: what do I tell them if the movie is trash? I was sitting in my seat waiting for it to start like: I mean, I only really see them in person like once a year so…
Which is to say: I was prepared to trash this movie. The pre-release chatter hasn’t been great. Writer Ernie Cline’s past as a slam poet—and a few poems in particular–have been dug up and annotated like the research paper on that joint was due yesterday. But the biggest criticism is how Ready Player One fits into a post-GamerGate world, or more to the point, does it?
I’m going to argue that it does even though there are places where the adaption of the novel for the big screen could have—no, should have—better served the “nerd” demographic the novel so clearly targeted.
Is it feel good nostalgia? Yes. Without doubt. If you collected anything at all associated with the 80s, you will want to go home and gaze lovingly at your collection. Hell, you might find yourself on EbayEtsyCraiglist search for that elusive item you’ve never forgotten and absolutely don’t need. Is the movie nostalgic to a fault? Ehhhhh. I think that depends on what you’re looking for.
When I saw the movie, I was with a decidedly non-nerd affiliated WOC. We found ourselves sitting next to two… non-Wakandans. Even before the movie started, they were talking about what Easter Eggs they hoped to see. During the movie, they clapped more than once when the secret code of nerd reference made its way into the storyline.
To be clear, the journey of Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan, was littered with them. They are inextricable from the plot. The movie’s plot and the movie itself are Easter Egg hunts. If you’re expecting anything else, this isn’t the movie for you. Does that mean that if you are not a bonafide nerd who is only reading this review while taking a break from polishing or cataloging your collection you won’t enjoy this movie? No. That’s not at all the case.
That non-nerd WOC I brought with me? She liked it. Because it’s a lighthearted good time. It’s a coming-of-age-and-stick-it-to-the-man while doing it story ala Goonies. Wade Watts and his band of cyber misfits must find the Easter Egg left in the Oasis by its creator Halliday (Mark Rylance) in order to inherit Halliday’s fortune and, more importantly, control of the Oasis (which is essentially if the internet had a baby with virtual reality). The big bad is the IOI Corp led by Sorrento played by Ben Mendelsohn. He wants control of the Oasis, too, so obviously, antics ensue.
While a lot of criticism has focused the white cishet nerd wish fulfillment of the book and movie, I think that tends to ignore the little guy versus conglomerate angle. And the power of friendship and passion (in this case for pop culture) versus cold calculating research and a detachment that is antithetical to passion. Wade loves the Oasis; Sorrento loves money and power.
Maybe I’m feeling generous in this age of dying net neutrality. Maybe it’s because the women who hold me down the hardest do so through the same screen I’m staring into as I type this. This fight doesn’t seem the exclusive purview of any particular kind of nerd as much as it might speak to those of us whose lives, by necessity, exist online as much as, or more than, “meat space.”
That’s not to say that these criticisms can’t exist simultaneously or that I don’t have criticisms of my own. They can and I do.
My criticisms deal mostly with the supporting cast. Olivia Cooke’s Art3mis, while spoken about as a capable gunter (portmanteau of Egg Hunter), ends up being a trophy to be won. Yes, she plays a role in the outcome… kind of, but her character falls flat; she is often a prop or a prize in Wade’s story.
Similarly, too, [here’s where I try to avoid spoilers] the movie falls into what I call The Princess and the Frog trap. In a world, the Oasis, where you can look like anyone, why do most (I think the word I’m looking for is “all” but I’ve only seen it once so…) choose to look phenotypically white or like an imaginary creature? Perhaps I’m holding director Steven Speilberg to too high a standard in this post-BP world? So what if I am; I’m okay with that.
Minor Spoilers in this Paragraph
The rest of Wade’s crew, Lena Waithe’s Helen, Philip Zhao’s Sho and Win Morisaki’s Daito are supposed to be a part of the High Five, the clan that solves Halliday’s game, but this is not an ensemble cast such as one might see in the Avengers. These are not people in their own right. Instead it becomes Wade and the Wadettes. A shift here, in depth of character, would’ve answered a lot of the white nerd wish fulfillment criticism. Since this movie is also, at its core, about isolation it makes sense. Simon Pegg’s Ogden Morrow is the conversation starter if the film were to include more of Wade’s crew in meaningful ways.
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Overall though, this is a fun movie. It’s light. It moves quickly. We know, definitively, whose side we’re on and we get to hum or, if you’re the two dudes I was sitting next to, sing—along to a soundtrack you didn’t realize you knew. It’s a date movie and that date might be with your partner or your partner-in-crime or your nerdy AF dad.