by Alvin G. Burstein
The movie takes us to a dystopia set a few decades in the future. We visit The Stacks, a collection of futuristic, highrise, crowded, big city slums. The unsavory dwellings are populated by the survivors in an America ravaged by the consequences of global warming, a stagnant economy, over-population and unemployment. They are, like the Oakies of the 1930’s, oppressed by factors outside of their control. But they have no California to which to flee.
Their pie in the sky, the opiate for these unhappy masses, is a complex multi-player, interactive computer game called OASIS. The game enables its players to enter a virtual world, actually to choose among multiple worlds, offering gratifications and distractions to avatars of themselves, virtual identities that they can shape to their liking. The popularity of OASIS was such that its creator became enormously wealthy.
The game is the brainchild of James Halliday, an introverted caricature of Steve Jobs, whom we meet in a series of flashbacks embedded in an archive in the game. Just before his death, Halliday announces that he has hidden an Easter Egg in the game, unlocked by three keys. The player who finds those keys will inherit his fortune and control of the game.
That promise stimulates players/avatars, who call themselves “Gunters” (for egg hunters), who search for the keys. It has also stimulated a search for the keys by a rival corporation, Innovative Online Industries (IOI). In contrast to the amateur Gunters, IOI avatar searchers, called “Sixers” (after their six digit serial numbers) are highly professional and centrally controlled by Nolan Sorrento, the real life and avatar villain of the story.
The protagonist in the story is 18 year-old Wade Watts, whose Gunter avatar is named Parzival. Watts is a geekish kid fascinated by the 80’s trivia, that of Halliday’s era. Parzival—the avatar’s name an echo of the Arthurian knight Percival, who first sought the Holy Grail—teams up with two other Gunters, Aech and Art3mis, after the mythological huntress.
Watts’ nerdy trivia knowledge facilitates Parzival’s discovery of the first of Halliday’s keys. The resultant OASIS celebrity brings Parzival to the attention of the Sixers and ignites a murderous competition that comes to pervade both the virtual OASIS and the real world Stacks. The movie is apt in interweaving the two realms and in exploring the deepening relationship between Parzival/Watts and Art3mis/Samantha Cook.
A stellar performance in the film is that of Mark Rylance, playing James Halliday and his avatar, Anorak. You may remember Rylance. In the film Bridge of Spies, he portrayed the Russian spy exchanged for the U 2 pilot shot down in 1962. In Ready Player One, the actor captures Halliday’s autism spectrum quirkiness with remarkable wit and feeling. Both the movie and the novel it restages portray a conflict teenaged non-conformist Gunters and the capitalist hegemony of IOI. There is an eerie synchronicity between the fictional conflict and the current confrontation between high school students “woked” by the shootings at the Florida Parkland school and the National Rifle Association with its client politicians.
On a different level, there is complex moral implied by the film: Although virtual pyrotechnics have appeal and may even be addictive, in the end, the suffering and gratifications of reality trump those of the imaginary.
On the other hand, the film describes success, defined as fame and riches, as a reward for knowledge of trivia and skill at gaming—a sharp contrast with the Horatio Alger literature of the Victorian age. Those stories celebrated an ethic of success as a reward for hard work, self-control and honesty.