Podcast: READY PLAYER ONE with Helen O’Hara from the Empire Podcast

READY PLAYER ONE! What concerns us about virtual worlds? What are the character’s motivations throughout the film? Where does this film fit in Spielberg’s canon? On this show, we dig deeper into READY PLAYER ONE!

Helen O’Hara, editor-at-large and freelancer at Empire Magazine and one of the hosts of the Empire Podcast (and one of our favorite guests), joins Daryl and Jay to dig deeper into Steven Spielberg’s film, READY PLAYER ONE…

Podcast audio:

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The Story Geeks bloggers Anthony Holdier and Ashley Pauls respond with an additional perspective to the same questions discussed in the podcast. Want to share your own take? Join the conversation in The Story Geeks Facebook group

1. First of all, how do you feel about “Ready Player One” overall? How do you think it holds up against the rest of Spielberg’s legendary catalog?

Anthony: For my money, Ready Player One is the cinematic equivalent of Rembrandt doing a paint-by-numbers kit: it’s not necessarily bad, but it’s also definitely not what he’s known for making. And I don’t mean to insult the movie by saying this (although I could!), but it’s a pretty formulaic story that exists mainly for the nostalgia; since Spielberg is one of the creators of many of the pop culture references in this movie, it’s hard to compare RPO to the rest of his filmography.

Ashley: So, this might be a slightly controversial thought 😉 but I actually enjoyed the “Ready Player One” movie more than the book. For whatever reason, I didn’t connect with the book as much, whereas I thought the movie was a fun (if not *quite* mind-blowing) adventure. I also felt like I connected with on-screen Wade Watts more than book Wade Watts, and I thought the female characters were handled better in the movie as well.

As for how the movie stacks up against the rest of Spielberg’s filmography… Like I said before, this is a fun movie, but it’s not an instant classic like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “Jurassic Park.” It’s a perfect Saturday afternoon matinee sort of movie. Not groundbreaking, but still entertaining.

2. What were your favorite pop culture references in the film?

Anthony: I’m a sucker for a DeLorean, but Firefly’s Serenity makes my heart sing whenever I see it!

Ashley: The references were flying fast and furious onscreen, so I’m sure I missed some of them! But I loved seeing the virtual DeLorean from “Back to the Future,” and the nod to the “Jurassic Park” T-rex in the racing sequence was also awesome. Plus, seeing the Iron Giant reminded me how much I loved that movie.

3. Wade says, “These days, reality is a bummer. Everyone’s looking for a way to escape.” And that people have stopped trying to fix problems and are just trying to outlive them. How far do you think we are from this degree of escapism in real life?

Anthony: On one hand, it’s easy to think that the ubiquity of screens today is the same thing as the Oasis, but I’m not so sure; the last decade has seen a generational awakening in the face of reality’s bleakness. Political activism, religious evangelism, even things like simple social engagement have all been facilitated by technology, not developed in spite of it — that is, we use our phones (computers, etc.) to build real-world communities and to take care of real-world problems. Escapism is certainly an issue in the technological era, but I don’t see our predicament to be nearly as dystopian as Wade’s was.

Ashley: I think we’re close to the world depicted in “Ready Player One,” which is a little bit scary. As someone who loves film, pop culture, etc., I think there’s nothing wrong with being a fan of fantasy worlds. And there’s no harm in limited escapism — i.e. sometimes it’s nice to just go to the movie theater and forget about the stresses of life for an hour or two.

Yet at the same time, we can’t let these imaginary realities distract us from real problems in the real world. I’m definitely guilty of this; sometimes I’ll get so overwhelmed by everything I see on the news that I’ll just want to retreat into the world of Star Wars, Doctor Who, or one of my other favorite franchises. But I know it’s important to pay attention to real world issues, so that I can be informed and look for ways I can help the situation.

It also makes me sad to see people get so angry about the things that happen in fictional universes like Star Wars or Star Trek, because at the end of the day, those worlds aren’t real. What happens in them doesn’t have the power to ruin people’s lives. By contrast, there are plenty of issues in our own society that very much need advocates and people willing to take action. I don’t want our culture to end up like the world Wade lives in, with people oblivious to the problems happening right outside their windows.

4. Do you think the Oasis has a positive or negative impact on the world? Do you think Halliday regrets creating it?

Anthony: It seems like Halliday is unhappy with what the Oasis has become, not with what it could be. Like many tools, the Oasis is only as good as its user and far too many people allowed it to corrupt their better interests. Ironically, one could argue that it was Halliday’s quest itself that motivated much of that corruption (since people were seeking the promise of money and power), but even when Wade nearly shuts the whole thing down accidentally at the end, Halliday seems hesitant to see such an outcome as good.

Ashley: Like many things in real life, the Oasis brings both good and bad to the world depicted in “Ready Player One.” As mentioned before, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having fun in these imaginary worlds and escaping now and then. The Oasis offers this magical alternate reality that people get to experience regardless of who they are or where they live; i.e. most people will never get a chance to climb Mt. Everest, but you can do it risk-free in the Oasis! The Oasis makes “adventure” more accessible.

However, the Oasis has a darker side as well. People get so caught up in the imaginary world that they neglect their real problems. They may become isolated, ignoring their family and friends and becoming too focused on what happens inside the Oasis vs. outside of it. The Oasis also attracts corrupt people, like the organization IOI, who want to take advantage of the players inside the game.

I imagine Halliday’s feelings about the Oasis are complicated. I think maybe he does have some regrets about it, and his life as a whole. Yet I’m sure he also still celebrates the sense of wonder and joy the Oasis can bring to people. Going forward, I feel like Wade will be able to shepherd the Oasis wisely, learning from some of Halliday’s mistakes.

5. Halliday’s three challenges give Parzival the insights he needs to assume control of the Oasis. How do you feel about the lessons Halliday was trying to convey?

Anthony: This was one of the major changes from the book (where the key gates were passed simply in virtue of your geek knowledge). I think that having the keys come as they do in the movie makes the narrative more interesting (and certainly sets up that final conversation with Halliday to be more meaningful), but — like much of this movie — it’s a concept that’s better on paper than in execution. Of the three, only the second lesson (saving your loved ones) really means something broader than “here’s a clue to pass this specific test”).

Ashley: In the film, Wade faces three challenges: a virtual race through New York City; a “leap not taken” in the re-imagined hotel from “The Shining”; and discovering an Easter egg inside an old Atari game.

In the virtual race, Wade wins by rethinking what he believes to be the established, unbreakable rules of the game. The lesson that Halliday is trying to teach is that it’s good to think outside the box; you shouldn’t try to limit your imagination.

In “The Shining” sequence, Halliday is trying to communicate that it’s better to take a risk than to live with regret. Telling someone you care about them can be tricky, because there’s a possibility they’ll reject you and break your heart. Still, it’s worth it in the end, because you don’t want to reach the end of your life and be haunted by “the road not taken.”

Finally, too many players in the last challenge get caught up in trying to win the video game, when Halliday really wants them to find joy in simply playing. Maybe it sounds a bit cheesy to say so, but many times the journey really is more important than the destination. We shouldn’t get so focused on our goals that we forget how to stop and have fun.

6. IOI’s prison is called the “Loyalty Center.” What do you think that says about the state of society in the film and about Nolan Sorrento’s motivation for wanting control of the Oasis?

Anthony: Now, here’s a change that I’m still unsure how I feel about: on one hand, I really liked the cold, money-hungry motivation of the book’s villains, but the emotional connection that the movie gave Sorrento to Halliday could have been pretty interesting. The name “Loyalty Center” seems heavy-handed, even for the world of the film (it’s just a corporation, guys, come on) — it seems like the filmmakers were just trying to evoke some of our previous associations with dystopian, all-seeing governments to make the IOI particularly sinister. In some ways, I wish that they had let the IOI be more blatantly evil just as a corporation!

Ashley: “Loyalty” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s a character trait that’s often celebrated in fiction, such as Captain America’s loyalty to his friend Bucky, and Sam’s loyalty to Frodo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

But the blind/forced loyalty IOI is after is not healthy, by any means. It’s good to be loyal to family and friends, and to causes that are worthy. Yet it’s also important for us to evaluate that loyalty and make sure that the person/thing we are loyal to is leading us down a good path. The mindless devotion Nolan Sorrento is seeking is dangerous to society, and it harms the lives of the people he is demanding loyalty from. IOI does not really care about the people in its Loyalty Center.

7. What insights do you think the film offers into the state of social media and our reliance on it?

Anthony: This question makes me think of Rick: a jerk through-and-through who blindly ignores the people and world around him to serve his own selfish interests. It’s true that it’s easy to be Ricks in a lot of ways, but — like I suggested earlier — I’m inclined to see technological communities as opportunities for real connections. That said, a healthy level of skepticism is a good attitude to approach unknown quantities with online (consider the surprise Wade felt when he met Aech in real life for the first time!) — but that’s not to say that online groups are necessarily dangerous (isn’t that right, Story Geeks?!)

Ashley: Lately I’ve been pondering whether or not social media has been a net gain for society, and I’m not sure that it has. I do love that I can use websites like Facebook to stay in touch with friends that I might otherwise never see again, such as college friends who have moved away and I no longer have regular contact information for. I’ve also been able to meet new friends through podcasting that I’ve never met in person, and I love being able to interact with them on social media. I’ve also had some really cool discussions about film and other topics via social media.

However, I do think social media has the power to reshape the way we interact with other people in the “real world,” and not necessarily in a good way. Is social media limiting face to face or verbal communication in our society? With a phone call, we can still hear a person’s tone of voice and interpret how they’re responding to the things we’re saying. I see a lot of arguments happening over Facebook comment sections and wonder if those same arguments would still happen if the people were looking at each other or if they could hear each other’s voices. When we communicate in a virtual, more impersonal manner, are we losing empathy? Will we eventually end up in a world like “Ready Player One,” where most of our interactions happen online?

I don’t have answers or solutions, but I think this issue is important to talk about. Although social media is a tool that can offer a lot of positives, it also has some serious pitfalls that we need to consider. We all need real human connections beyond the kind that are offered through the Oasis…or social media.

8. In “Ready Player One,” Spielberg returns to a familiar approach of using young people to drive his story. We’ve also seen it in “E.T.,” “Jurassic Park,” “A.I.,” and so on. What do you think is compelling about experiencing stories through young eyes?

Anthony: Spielberg has gotten a lot of mileage out of the immediate concern a lot of audiences can feel for young characters in danger. Like in “E.T.,” too, he knows how to turn a child’s innocence and wonderment at the world into plot-hastening devices. In an odd sort of way, given the amount of nostalgia that drips out of every pore this movie has (and the fact that the main characters are all older teenagers), I think we could make an argument that Spielberg is turning us, the audience, into the children for this movie. We get to see cartoon characters, video game models, classic vehicles, and beloved toys we might remember from years back now become relevant to saving the (fictional) world. In some ways, I might see it as a cheap trick (dancing on our nostalgia buttons as this story does), but I must admit that it’s pretty fun!

Ashley: As adults, it’s easy to get caught up in the stresses and day-to-day routine of life, and to lose our sense of wonder about the world. That’s why stories with young protagonists can feel refreshing, I think. Kids are less cynical and more curious; they’re less afraid to take a risk and try something new. They also don’t take themselves as seriously.

While we definitely don’t want to be “childish,” I think it’s good to strive to be “childlike” — to assume the best about people and to have a passion for discovery and exploration. Spielberg’s movies capture that childlike sense of wonder and optimism very well.

9. At the end of the film (inside the Oasis), we learn that Halliday is not an avatar, but he does tell Parzival that the real Halliday is dead, and he doesn’t answer the question about what he is. So, what do you think Halliday is?

Anthony: I’m inclined to think that Halliday is, in fact dead, but that he may have found a way to fully upload his consciousness into the Oasis. The possibility that Halliday is still alive somewhere in the real world, tapping into the Oasis constantly would grind against the big themes of the movie (the importance of community and an appreciation for the unsimulated world), so I much prefer the idea that he’s now “trapped” inside his construct. We could debate whether it counts to call him “dead,” then, if his mind is still active, but his body, at least, has gone the way of all men, I think.

Ashley: I’m actually not sure what the answer is, and I like that the film leaves it vague and open-ended. One theory I’ve found is that maybe Halliday has uploaded his consciousness into the Oasis, but to me that maybe conflicts with the film’s message that people need to seek out real-life connections versus just virtual ones. Virtual life is not a substitute for real life.

Maybe we’re meant to be left with a lingering mystery. I don’t think every question needs to be answered in fiction, and sometimes I appreciate when it isn’t. With “Ready Player One,” I think Spielberg is trying to celebrate imaginary worlds while also reminding us not to forget about the real one.