Fandom is a kind of religion. Like religion, we’re usually drawn to our favorite movies, books, and TV because of a strong emotional pull, an identification with the art we’re encountering, and how it helps tell the story of our lives when we first encounter it. Like religion, it’s also possible for fans to get bogged down in aesthetics, details, and expectations in trying to capture and define the original spark of truth that hooked us. Like the Pharisees, we can (and often do) get legalistic about the things we love, confusing rules and rituals for devotion.
Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One is an example of that confusion. In Cline’s dystopian sci-fi tale, the plot often feels like a thinly veiled excuse for the author to list his favorite things and how much he knows about them. Steven Spielberg’s adaptation, out this week, occasionally succeeds in breaking through into more thoughtful territory. But more often than not, it falls into the same trap, preferring to throw reference after reference at the screen without exploring why the sources of those references resonate with the characters, or the audience.
The film takes place in 2045. Our hero, Wade (Tye Sheridan), like millions of other people, spends his days logged on to the Oasis, an immersive VR gaming platform created by reclusive genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance). When Halliday dies, he leaves behind a video announcing a competition. The first person to solve a series of hidden challenges in the game will inherit control of the Oasis, as well as Halliday’s stock in his company. Most of the challenges relate to Halliday’s pop culture loves from his 1980s childhood, including movies and early video games.
Wade and his friends are actively hunting for the prize, using their obsessive knowledge of Halliday’s life, as well as the cultural artifacts he cherished. On the other side of the battle is Innovative Online Industries, a tech behemoth run by poser Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn),who wants to use the Oasis for his own commercialized ends.
Fandom, and by extension, nostalgia, works best when it comments on who we once were and who we are now in an expansive sense. Like a spiritual journey, the things we love work as touchstones in understanding ourselves. This is an idea that Spielberg, whose own art is heavily influenced by nostalgia, understands well, and the best parts of Ready Player One use their copious pop culture references as keys to understanding characters, particularly the enigmatic Halliday.
These moments include an impressive sequence set in a digital re-creation of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, and a surprisingly vulnerable moment that takes place in a digitized, idyllic version of Halliday’s childhood bedroom. Here we can see culture as a personal narrative and as a sanctuary. This is underlined by Rylance’s great performance, which shows us an awkward, shy kid who never really grew up, and deeply regrets not having tried harder to connect with people.
Unfortunately, that’s not a sentiment shared by the rest of the film. In their quest, Wade and his friends display their encyclopedic knowledge of vintage pop culture as badges to be worn, or tools to be used, rather than pieces of personal meaning. At one point, Sorrento meets with Wade to try and win him over, spouting references fed to him by a lackey in another room. Wade calls his bluff, telling his enemy, “A fanboy knows a hater.” But it’s hard to see much of a difference between the two characters in that moment. They’re both using rote, memorized facts, rather than actual connection, to fuel their conversation and get what they want. The only difference is that Wade had to do the research on his own, while Sorrento has a team doing it for him.
Rules and traditions are still valuable parts of any community, whether it’s a church, a concert, a comic book store, or a movie theater. But the gospels remind us time and time again that they aren’t the only thing that matters. Strict legalism, no matter where it happens, becomes a problem when it takes over the spiritual, and divides people into those who “get it” and those who don’t. Ready Player One conflates cultural gatekeeping with genuine love. The real dystopia of the film isn’t just a wrecked world that spends all its time online — it’s that the pervading cultural attitude is one of exclusion, where art itself isn’t as important as how much you can tell someone else about it.