Ready Player One
“The only characters with any power in Ready Player One are exclusively straight white men.”
Title: Ready Player One
Director: Steven Spielberg 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writer: Original book by Ernest Cline 👨🏼🇺🇸, screenplay by Ernest Cline 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Zak Penn 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Ready Player One is pure techno neon sunshine. Everything about it is aggressively familiar yet lacquered with modernity to keep things relevant: the colors are more saturated, the women are vaguely empowered; and the high quality CGI could have only existed as a fever dream in the 80s, the decade from which the story draws its inspiration. Look, Spielberg’s latest might not be deep, but it’s damned fun. You’d have to be a miser to dislike his shiniest toy yet.
We have two key women to consider in Ready Player One: Samantha (Olivia Cooke) whose avatar is the pixie-like Art3mis, and Helen (Lena Waithe) whose avatar is the burly Aech.
Samantha is the classic Spielbergian love interest. In her avatar form, she’s a tokenized female among a group of guys, the dynamic of which you can see anywhere from Goonies (1985) to It (1990 or 2017) to recent shows like the backwards-looking Stranger Things. In all of the above, the token female has a role to play but she’s firmly second fiddle to the white male lead; in this case, Samantha supports Parzival, the avatar of Wade (Tye Sheridan).
What I did like about Spielberg’s film adaptation is how Samantha adopts a more active role onscreen. It’s exciting to see her infiltrate the headquarters of the corporate villains—a mission that was undertaken by Wade in the book, albeit in a different, longer operation. On the flipside, any gains she makes are lost when the screenwriters puncture her ambition like a popped tire. Her avatar, Art3mis, begins as an equal to Parzival, both of them competing neck-in-neck to search for the keys that will guarantee ownership of the film’s virtual world, the OASIS. But without explanation she suddenly drops behind Parzival, screeching her own chances to a halt like a yanked handbrake spewing up gravel. Suddenly, everything she does is in service to Wade’s goals. As writer Simon Abrams gripes, “Don't get me started on the way that she selflessly tells Wade that he "deserves" to win the contest more than her or their friends.”
Another important female character is Helen, played by Lena Waithe who outperforms her tiny role. In both the film and book versions of Ready Player One, Helen is the most interesting character. She is gay, black, and homeless—all attributes that feel much less explored than the backstory of Wade who is low-income but otherwise familiar as a straight white male in the center of a hero narrative.
Writer Kirsten Acuna describes what I found to be one of the most compelling threads from the novel:
“According to Helen, her mother Marie believed the OASIS, a place where you could appear to be anyone, was the best thing to happen to women and people of color. Marie used a white male avatar because of "the marked difference it made in how she was treated and the opportunities she was given."”
Like her mother, Helen chooses a male avatar: the towering, ultra-masculine Aech. Now that’s a backstory I would have loved to have sunk my teeth into. Unfortunately, Ready Player One just doesn’t feel equipped to handle such depth. Instead, in both book and film, the story remains a glossy veneer that prefers to wow its audiences through pop culture easter eggs and pure escapism. Meanwhile, the more interesting characters are demoted to backup for an insipid male lead who never actually earns his place at the head of the table beyond some “aha!” moments that vault him into being the king of the OASIS.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 0% of creative decision-makers were POC (!!!).
According to GradeMyMovie.com, there are literally no creative decision-makers of color who helped bring Ready Player One into being. And it shows. The only characters with any power in the film are exclusively straight white men—Wade, the two creators of the OASIS, and the lead villain.
Where we do see some people of color is in Wade's clan, which he calls the "High Five." As his best friend, Helen is rendered positively but remains a flat character with no development of her own. In fact, across the High Five, only the white characters have any depth at all.
I couldn’t describe the rest of the group better than Peter Rubin does for Wired:
“The other members of their merry OASIS clan, Daito and Sho, are a ninja and a shogun in VR; in real life, they're revealed to be Japanese and...well, that's it. No, wait; one is a prodigy, the other meditates.”
I’m grasping for positive things to say in this category, but I will mention that I appreciated how the actors were cast with consideration for their correct ethnicities. Daito is played by Win Morisaki, who is of Burmese descent but who lives in Japan and who considers himself immersed in its culture. The accent he has in the film is his own. Meanwhile, Sho is played by Philip Zhao, a Chinese American from Maryland. Instead of forcing Zhao into the book’s native Japanese role, wherein Sho is the avatar for Akihide Karatsu, the screenplay switches the character to the Chinese American “Zhou” instead to reflect their actor's ethnicity. While the roles remain flat and stereotyped, at the very least we don't get the sense that writers see all Asians as the same.
Deduction for LGBTQ: -0.50
Helen is canonically gay in the book. While the film does allude to her sexuality, it’s ultimately negligible. Specifically, we catch a glimpse of her male avatar catching an attractive woman who throws herself at him in the OASIS. Flustered, Aech mentions how he doesn’t mind this turn of events. Truly, you’d have to be looking for confirmation of Helen’s queerness to even notice the moment.
Critic Jasmine Sanders explains this sense of taking one step forward with casting, but not going far enough:
“Ready Player One begins to pull back the curtain...but only does it partway. Though the film casts Waithe—who recently became the first black woman to win an Emmy for the Master of None episode “Thanksgiving,” which was based on her experiences as a queer black woman—it does not explicitly reveal her character’s sexuality.”
How much longer will Hollywood continue to erase queer characters in the name of there not being enough narrative space? When will writers actually just, you know, make space? I can’t help feeling like we’re missing out on interesting backstories because of timidity or laziness.
Mediaversity Grade: C 3.33/5
Spielberg’s Ready Player One is cotton candy fluff with no real interest in telling diverse stories. But it’s relatively inoffensive, meaning that viewers can keep their eyes on the prize without being distracted by the kinds of misogyny or racial stereotyping that could have torpedoed this nostalgic tale.