Notice spoilers: in this article there are a lot of spoilers so if you have not seen the movie please stop reading here.
I was reluctant to make a review of Steven Spielberg’s latest film but since I saw it I’ve been thinking a lot about it for several days so I finally could not contain myself.
I liked the movie a lot, that’s the first thing. It is a visual spectacle of first magnitude. Spielberg is not anybody making movies, and the characters, when they are in Oasis and show themselves as their avatars, are literally perfect. They have a touch of computer animation, the right one for us to realize that they are not actors of flesh and blood, something done on purpose, but at the same time they are visually emotional, with their gestures and looks close to perfection.
But I hoped that Ready Player One was going to be more than a visual spectacle. It was the film in which I expected to finally see a VR coming out of that dismal pit into which Hollywood had been putting it for years. The film in which VR finally ceased to be the bad, the dangerous, the harmful. Previous films like Matrix, or TV series like Sword Art Online and Marvel Shield Agents, have left us with a VR that causes dread. People connected to virtual worlds that live enslaved, even without knowing it. It scares just think about it even though all that is inside an impossible fantasy with current technology. But that is not important. The modern viewers tend to stay much more with the negative than with the positive when trying to value a technology. Especially if it is a new technology that has just started to be implemented.
In the movie Spielberg falls into the same mistake and does not respect the original book at a point that seems essential. The novel does not see the world of Oasis as something negative. It is a world with many positive things. For example, the planet Ludus, dedicated to educational centers, has the enormous advantage for Wade, the protagonist, who is a student, that he can enjoy his classes without bullying and teachers can give a higher quality education to students. They don’t have to be aware of forcing their students to stay quiet. Oasis software does all that for them. However, planet Ludus, one of the best described ones in the Ernest Cline novel, does not have a single image in the film.
Nor do we see anything of Incipio, the calm planet plagued with stores, businesses and places for entertainment, that is usually the place in Oasis that visitors usually inhabit if they don’t like video games. As the film describes Oasis, it would seem that the whole world, the entire humanity, have gone crazy and is dedicated all day, morning, afternoon and night to play hyperreal video games inside Oasis, getting money from playing. It completely contradicts what is told in the novel. In fact, Wade, in the novel, does not get money based on playing within Oasis, a very unprofitable activity, but on the basis of giving technical support to new visitors or people who have problems using their hardware, an activity that is carried out from within the Oasis itself. Wade’s aunt and her boyfriend do not live connected all day. In fact, they remove an old video game console from Wade in order to resell it to get money. In the book you have the feeling that there is a group of obsessed Oasis users, gunters and other addicted people, who are usually and permanently connected to look for the Halliday’s Easter Egg or because they enjoy Oasis to an excess, but common people uses Oasis without addictions. They enter Incipio, do their business there, and disconnect. When the novel ends, Wade does not make the decision to close Oasis some days of the week to avoid people’s addiction, a measure that on the other hand would not achieve anything. If something like this is done today with an MMO game, people would still be as hooked as before, playing longer times on days when the game is active to make up for the days that it’s not.
It seems that Spielberg wanted to highlight the dangers of VR, which VR has, it is true, but using the inspiration of a novel that curiously is the first novel to deepen like no other in the beneficial effects of VR. Spielberg had a complicated job and I understand it. Condensing Oasis in two hours of footage was very complicated. Not only because the number of eighties references of which the novel offers a feast, but because Oasis itself. Oasis, now I realize it, deserves a television series, not a movie. But a TV series that adequately addresses the problem of VR, which is not people’s addiction but fascist abuses of multinational companies. VR in the hands of a company that seeks to invade people’s privacy, or that seeks to bleed consumers with micropayments, or that seeks to overload viewers with advertising, that is the great risk. Not people’s addiction. Who is more guilty for tobacco addiction, tobacco companies that manufacture cigarettes with more addictive substances, or consumers? Who is more guilty of air pollution, drivers of combustion vehicles, or automakers who refuse to investigate and manufacture cars without emissions? Behind all the great evils of the world there is a sinister multinational company that only seeks its own benefit even at the expense of humanity itself. Nothing matters to them in order to make their profits rise steadily.
And the bad guys in Ready Player One, who were fucking bad in the novel, in the movie are a bit of a joke. In the novel, one of the protagonists dies murdered, how you feel about about that. And Wade is about to be, at least that has been reflected in the film. Sorrento, the villain, is just a puppeteer in the hands of bosses who do not appear in the novel, but who should have had their leading role in the film. IOI, the company that tries to take control of Oasis, that is the real villain of the story. That is, their top executives, those guys with suits and ties who live like kings while the world lives in a galloping economical crisis. Does everything of this sounds to you? Suddenly Oasis (which is equivalent in story to say “Internet”) is threatened by a megacorporation that wants to take over it (read “stop the neutrality of the Net”) and a group of young adventurers decide to give a lesson to that evil company. To the company, not to an intermediate boss that looks like he knows nothing. And for that they use their best weapon, the best thing in fact that exists in their lives: VR. That is basically the plot of the novel, an argument that Spielberg has changed to try to gain a beautiful story that tries to moralize about the risks of the excessive use of immersive technology (either VR, videogames, or TV shows). I’ve always been curious about how we demonize a technology that forces you to spend dozens of hours connected to it. To read Ready Player One I needed a dozen hours and nobody demonizes books. There are novels whose reading requires a dedication in time much longer than that of a videogame, but nobody ever talks about reading addiction. Curious!
So it seems inevitable that we will follow film after film attending a continuing morality about the dangers of VR. “VR is dangerous”, remember it. That will continue to be the slogan for the next few years. Reason why VR doesn’t starth taking off at consumer level. It starts to have a very strong use in some companies, but common users are still waiting for the Wasapp of VR or the photo manager of VR. Oculus, the company that started all this five years ago, tries it with Oculus Social and with Oculus Dash, but it is very lonely. Hardly anyone else is joining the car. Apple continues to play dumb, Microsoft speaks with very big words but then offers few nuts to chew, and Google continues only with mobile VR but with nothing in the PC world. So with this path we will not see great advances in VR in next ten years. The technology is already very mature, and it will be more mature in the next generation of headsets, but the important market, that of apps, remains stagnant and without great progress. And so VR is gaining its label as a niche product only for videogames. Very sad.
A pity but I’m afraid that Spielberg’s Ready Player One will not be the Top Gun for VR aviators. Maybe Ready Player Two?