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The reactionary moralism of Spielberg’s “Ready Player One”

Spielberg’s film is an improvement upon its source material, being more interested in charting out the hazards of virtual reality.

Tye Sheridan stars in a scene from the movie "Ready Player One." (CNS photo/Warner Bros.)

Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One is better than the book it adapts (also titled Ready Player One). Both the film and the book are set in the year 2045 and feature a near-future contest for control over the OASIS, a world-spanning virtual reality network. But Spielberg’s film spends more time charting out the hazards of a situation in which virtual reality has overwhelmed reality-reality, leading to a more believable world and more realistic characters. Spielberg’s film shows better the novel both the attractions and perils of an increasingly online future.

The main attraction of the book is the highly imaginative portrayal of what an immersive, super-sophisticated VR network might be like: a playground of creativity where you can “be” whatever you want to be, and where life—including relationships, education, even many careers—is a game. Ever wanted to fly an X-Wing from Star Wars? Use Max Headroom as a personal assistant? Determine, and then change, your appearance on a whim? Haptic body suits that simulate the sensation of touch even allow a wide array of simulated sexual experimentation. The book’s author, Ernest Cline, paints his picture very well. It looks like a lot of fun.

The movie shows us the fun, too: the opening sequence is an adrenaline-driven, no-holds-barred road race with obstacles from giant wrecking balls to an enraged King Kong. You can dance in zero-G, drive the Delorian from Back to the Future, and blast your way through demon hordes on Planet Doom. But those aren’t the main attraction. Spielberg, as always, is interested in telling a morality tale. As usual, the tale is a warning: VR is addictive and has any number of social and personal detriments. The OASIS, Spielberg shows us, by distracting us from our real-world problems, allows us to acquiesce in a social-political-economic order that tolerates ever-greater inequalities between rich and poor. Giant media corporations have revived debt slavery and employ private security as a parallel police force. Cities have been turned into slums where the OASIS lets people forget about the squalor of their surroundings. Human relationships are attenuated; people walk around in public plugged into their VR helmets (OK, so that doesn’t sound very futuristic).

Spielberg seems to have understood or intuited the problems with the book. Cline clearly does not want his readers to abandon reality-reality for virtual reality, but he hasn’t done enough to inoculate the reader against that danger. Spielberg does better, mostly by subtly altering the parameters of the contest that provides for the main plot.

In both the book and the film, the OASIS’ inventor, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), designs a contest with control of the OASIS as its prize. In the book, Halliday’s longtime partner, Ogden Morrow (played in the film by Simon Pegg), explains what the purpose of the contest is: “Jim always wanted everyone to share his obsessions, to love the same things he loved. I think this contest is his way of giving the entire world an incentive to do just that.” Halliday—and protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan)—find the real world difficult and dangerous, especially interacting with fellow human beings. The real world has rules, both natural and social, that make it hard for the two nerdy characters to navigate and find any success. So both turn to VR, which is far less resistant to human will and desires than reality-reality is. Halliday, the nerd-übermensch, transvalues all values within the OASIS to match his own obsessions: B-movies, 1980s videogames, comic books, and other bastions of nerd culture.

In the book, the best-compensated scholars in this new world brought into being by Halliday are the “Oologists” who study Halliday’s obsessions with an eye toward finding the clues that will unlock the “Easter Egg” that wins the contest. The path to success, power, and prestige is not to pursue science, philosophy, or politics, but to study nerd trivia. The right to rule depends on knowledge of Rush lyrics and Atari games.

The situation is very different in the film. In the film, the way to win the contest is to retrace Halliday’s biographical steps and undo the mistakes Halliday ended up regretting. There were two mistakes that were most significant. First, he took the eventual Mrs. Ogden Morrow, Kira, on a date before Ogden met her. But Halliday, despite knowing she loved to dance, took her to see The Shining instead. He never asked her to dance and he never “took the leap” to try to kiss her. The second mistake Halliday made was in pushing his friend, Ogden, away and cutting him out of the company they founded together. To reverse Halliday’s first mistake, Wade’s love-interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) has to ask Kira (Perdita Weeks) to dance after surviving a harrowing trip through a VR simulation of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. To reverse the second mistake, Wade has to refuse to sign the contract that makes him sole owner of the OASIS, instead choosing to share ownership with his friends. The first mistake involved an activity that uses bodily intimacy and action to express the joining of mind and will. The second mistake involves self-imposed loneliness and unwillingness to attach to real friends.

In the book, Cline registers some nervousness about VR technology, but it is fleeting and superficial. When Wade and Art3mis fall in love in the OASIS, she expresses concern about their never having met in real life. At the end of the book, after experiencing their first kiss, Wade realizes, “For the first time in as long as I could remember, I had absolutely no desire to log back into the OASIS.” But this new realization seems tacked-on, and it is hard to believe him. Earlier in the book, Wade meets his online best friend, Aech (Lena Waithe), in person; his reaction is telling: “As we continued to talk, going through the motions of getting to know each other, I realized that we already did know each other, as well as any two people could. We’d known each other for years, in the most intimate way possible. We’d connected on a purely mental level. I understood her, trusted her, and loved her as a dear friend.” None of what turn out for Wade to be the “inconsequential” epiphenomena of Aech’s physical existence (“her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation”) really has any bearing on their friendship. Wade’s notion of friendship turns out to be entirely disembodied. Wade and Art3mis holding hands for three pages at the end of the book are not nearly enough to overcome the previous 369 pages of vivid, exciting OASIS action.

Here also, Spielberg improves on the book by backing up words praising reality-reality over virtual reality with deeds. Wade and Art3mis, upon gaining control of OASIS, decree that it will be closed twice a week, thereby encouraging people not to dissolve their whole lives into VR.

The film is significantly more moralistic and judgmental about the perils of VR than the book. That turns out to be an improvement in the direction of realism. Cline’s fanboyishness about VR did not leave much room for exploring the possibly deleterious effects of VR, a deficiency that seems more and more short-sighted—especially now, as alarms about social media are increasingly being sounded—and lead to flatter characters than appear in the film.

Still, the film could do with even more reflection. The Spielberg of Ready Player One is unmasked as a reactionary—it is not clear what grounds his moralism and judgmentalism. Artistic intuition can only get us so far. Why, after all, is the body important? At a key moment in the film, in which Halliday’s AI representative is explaining his purposes to Wade after Wade has won the contest, he tells Wade that he finally came to see reality-reality is best—it is “the only place to get a decent meal.” That line was one of the few false notes in the film, expressing a jarring flippancy and unseriousness. Yes, meals are important because they sustain the body—and the body, with its senses of touch and taste, is the main thing neglected by VR.

But what is the big deal about the body, especially when a haptic suit can simulate the sense of touch and, presumably, some other sufficiently advanced technology could eventually simulate the sense of taste? What is different about dancing in person, versus a haptic-suited, zero-G dance in the OASIS with an impossibly beautiful partner in a dazzling, simulated dance hall? Why is it better for Wade and Art3mis to have a real-world, rather than a cyber, “relationship”? After all, not all real-world women live up to their VR avatars. What if Art3mis—or Samantha, her real name—had been ugly, or physically disabled, or chronically ill? Why should a man choose a woman (and vice versa) whose body and real-world limitations put so many constraints on his will and desires? For that matter, why is it good to choose reality-reality, with all of its limitations, over something like the OASIS, with its promises of unencumbered creativity and the (simulated) satisfaction of all desires? Why choose a game, which has been set up to facilitate our success, over reality, which, we have good reason to suspect, has not? Here, at least, the doctrine of original sin can come to our aid in identifying whose fault it is that reality presents such difficulties. But why are those difficulties good and good for us?

These are obvious questions raised by the improvements Spielberg has made to Cline’s story, but they are questions Spielberg cannot answer. Some attempt to find answers to these questions would have made Ready Player One a stronger film; real-world attempts to find such answers will only become more important as we confront an increasingly virtual future.


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About Thomas P. Harmon 13 Articles
Thomas P. Harmon is Professor of Theology and Culture at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California.

3 Comments

  1. Ok, great insight; but as a practicing Catholic, always looking for appropriate forms of entertainment, would you recommend the movie for me?

  2. I’m not sure I get why Professor Thomas P. Harmon is saying that the movie exhibits “reactionary moralism.”

    I’ll guess that he’s saying that the movie exhibits a moral sense, but does not ground that moral sense in either Divine Revelation or Natural Law. Is that it?

    If so, then “superficial moralism” would perhaps be more apt, wouldn’t it?

    Regardless, movies like this play upon viewers fantasy of Power. At least I think so.

    I read somewhere that there are mainly two kinds of movies:

    (1) Those that give viewers a vicarious feeling of Great Power. This would include “Star Wars” and all the superhero movies.

    (2) Those that give viewers a vicarious feeling of Great Love.
    This would include “Twilight,” “The Fault in Our Stars,” and so on.

    What both types of movies have in common is that they are FANTASIES. Life in the real flesh-and-blood world is never so bright and shiny and rapturous, or, is rarely so. No, I think I’ll stick with “never.”

    And so, I submit to you that ALL movies corrupt good morals, by corrupting our sense of reality. Many or most of us end up semi-addicted to entertainment because life in the real world seems wrong and too dismal, as compared to the ever-enthralling, ever-enchanting world of fiction.

    Though Palestine in the time of Jesus and His apostles and His early disciples had many theaters performing many great works of stage fiction, the Bible never depicts Jesus or his followers attending the theater. This may tell us something important.

  3. Bartolomé de las Casas writes,
    “And so, I submit to you that ALL movies corrupt good morals, by corrupting our sense of reality. Many or most of us end up semi-addicted to entertainment because life in the real world seems wrong and too dismal, as compared to the ever-enthralling, ever-enchanting world of fiction.”

    Could not agree more, and would suggest that this addiction largely accounts for 1) Our vocations crisis; 2) The mental illness of many of our young people; 3) the consequent school shootings; 4) the abandonment of the faith by many people; 5) the priestly pedophile crisis, since entertainment has replaced the prayer by which the catholic people used to support their priests. One sufficient example: An Indian priest tells me that when he used to walk through his parish when he first arrived, as he walked he would hear families praying the rosary, but then TV came and all he hears as he walks through his village in Andrha Pradesh is the sound of the TV. For us in the West, this happened in the fifties. One many levels we are out of grace and have been for a very long time.

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