Thursday, April 12, 2018

Ready Player One: Community, Power, And True Winners

As a movie, Ready Player One probably deserves both the kudos and criticism it’s been garnering. Yes, it’s a visual feast. Yes, the 80s references are a lot of fun. Yes, it gives only a “meager emotional charge.” It’s also “a cautionary tale about burying ourselves in pop culture while the world burns,” but even that message comes across more clinically than experientially. As The Christian Science Monitor noted, “the message derived from it – that in our cyber age, we desperately need to spend more time in the real world – doesn’t resonate because Spielberg is much better here at virtual reality (VR) than reality.” Yup.

In spite of the mixed reviews, I enjoyed Ready Player One. The book was better – aren’t they always? – but RPO is an entertaining popcorn movie if you go into it expecting no more than that. If you are expecting something to deeply move you, choose another film. 

This is good for what it wants to be: a feel-good, pop culture homage validating our nostalgia for the years when technology was new enough (or we were young enough) that it felt like magic, the years when a screen of any kind could transport us into another world where we could escape from the frustrations and failures of the real world and be the person we always wanted to be in a world that made more sense to us than this one.

But that's not what stood out to me the most.
* * * * *

First, I liked the value it placed on community.

A couple hours after the movie, my 12-year-old turned to me and said, "That was about family, just like Guardians of The Galaxy 2." He was right. Both movies dealt with a group of people looking to find other they could think of as 'family.'

In spite of claiming he's not about to“clan up,” that’s what Wade does. I suspect he has always wanted to, but his experiences had not inclined him to believe anything would last. In fact, one of the (mostly unexplored) tragedies lurking beneath the gloss of thus movie is the remarkable disintegration of society and the resulting isolation and loneliness. 

When Wade’s guardians – his aunt and her husband - die (his mom and dad were already dead), there is no emotional impact. In fact, an entire tower of homes explodes in the Stacks, and we are left with an almost clinical observation that it had, in fact, happened. In a final showdown, Wade and his friends head to the Stacks so that his home community will protect him from the villain. They make a good show initial, but no one is ready to step in and risk their life. No one cares that much. This is a world in which relational investment is remarkably absent because everyone has invested who they into the Oasis, where everyone is fake and nothing is real.

As Wade and his new clan begin to connect in the real world, real life begins to matter again. I suspect really embracing this will be much more difficult than the movie suggests. Translating virtual relationships to real ones is hard. I was talking with a friend recently who lamented the current dating scene. Men have very little desire to invest in her relationally. They lead with blunt, crude suggestiveness; she says ‘Um, no thank you at all,’ and they retreat to their friends to point and laugh, children in men’s bodies. Her conclusion? “They interact with me like they would someone on Tinder.”

Hmmm. If we don’t work on relationships with flesh and blood people standing in front of you, with emotions emanating, arms waving, and eyes offering a window to the soul, not only will we lose the beauty and power of that relationship, we will eventually forget how to do it well.

So I liked how RPO reminded us of the importance of genuine community, lest genuine, deep relationship, with all its messiness, become yet another thing we remember wistfully 40 years from now when Ready Player 2 navigates a game in which people actually hang out with each other. 

* * * * * 

Second, I appreciated the way in which a winner was selected.

Halliday, the inventor of the Oasis, set up the contest so that the winners must demonstrate they have learned from his mistakes. The final challenge involves the winner rejecting the power that will come with owning the Oasis. It’s only when Wade surrenders his right to rule that he is given the privilege to rule. It’s a great test. The first thing he does is divide his power with his clan. He has learned from watching how power has hurt or corrupted others; he has no interest in falling prey to its allure. 

 The reality is that when people get power, they just become stronger versions of themselves (paging Tony Stark). Power certainly doesn’t make people better. It simply brings more people under the influence of the one wielding it.

Character and maturity matter. It's a standard on which we seem to have given up, as even a cursory glance at the moral landscape in Hollywood and Washington will reveal. 

Those in power must value people over things, generosity over greed, service over being served, honor over prestige. They must never see people as obstacles or mere means to an end. They must understand that while games are about winning, life is about living well. The must recognize that self-sacrifice, not self-indulgence, is the path to meaningful and good life.

Wade sees this. He could not have won the game if he did not.

Player One is ready.

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