Film, famously, is a mirror. Fundamental truths are reflected through “what-if” scenarios, fantasy epics and reimagined stories; Gandalf does not tangibly exist, but it does not follow that his character does not mean anything. Arrival (a science-fiction movie about contact with aliens) has much to say about language, national boundaries and the human condition.
The Harry Potter franchise, a cultural flashpoint for teen fantasy, is about adolescence and characters struggling with their moral center in a time of war. This is to say that most movies are about something. Even when the point is “fun,” meaning can still be present; the Captain America trilogy, while full of fun action sequences, also reflects a vision of patriotism and moral goodness.
When I say that Ready Player One is, on a fundamental level, about nothing, some may feel I am attacking them on the level of who they are. (For the uninitiated, Ready Player One is set in a dystopian future, starring an underdog who is really good at playing in an online virtual reality; you advance further wherein the more you know about ’80s culture. It contains references to almost every pop culture phenomenon from the ’80s onward.) It is no secret that what we read and what we watch can solidify as part of our identity — I am (somewhat childishly) stubborn about my status as a Ravenclaw.
What is wrong, some may cry, with a celebration of that identity? I cannot stop you from giving money to Steven Spielberg for the pleasure of being explicitly and shamelessly catered to. I can argue that this movie reveals something fundamental about the way we think about ourselves — and our politics — in modern America.
Take, for example, the current president. Over a year into Trump’s presidency, the statements of the president have become empty. Take, for example, the controversy around Trump’s (alleged) affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels. The official White House position is, simultaneously, that Stormy Daniels has no dirt on Trump and also that Donald Trump is suing Stormy Daniels for $20 million to keep her silent. For any other president, this would be legacy-defining, occupying years of American politics. Trump has prevented this by shifting expectations and profiting off of media hyper-saturation. This is not to say Trump is a Nixonian mastermind; the opposite is true. He is a president of nullity. When he makes a policy proclamation on guns or DACA or taxes or health care and then backtracks, he is not lying; he just does not have a center. He does not have a deeply-held moral vision. He is the president of vain entertainment, catering to audiences without caring about them. It is drama without stakes, egoism in its most pure form. It is not that the center will not hold; there was never a center.
Steven Spielberg is not Donald Trump. Ready Player One, however, echoes that Trumpian void. The Iron Giant is in this movie, only to serve as a “reference,” an Easter egg that moviegoers are instructed to enjoy (Ready Player One takes no issue with abandoning the pacifism that was central to the 1999 movie and the Iron Giant himself). The film stars a white male who thinks himself the underdog in a society that he dominates. Predictably, the film also has a girl problem (which is to say the female characters, at best, lack complexity). Ready Player One mirrors a corporate pop culture, hyper-saturated without deliberate interest in meaning. The film and Donald Trump are not the same, but they are not coincidental. They are examples of each other. The film, ultimately, is a Gamergate-esque attempt to return to our white-male-hero-serving roots disguised as pure entertainment, and like the president, ultimately just is not anything.