Ready Player One author Ernest Cline realized that geeks essentially took over the entertainment industry after he wrote his 2011 novel. The biggest films in every theater are mostly based on superhero comics or the Star Wars canon, and it seems every TV network is trying to get its hands on geeky, ultra-lucrative franchises. In fact, being a geek is such big business that it feels useless to try to separate the posers from the true fanboys, which Ready Player One, both the novel and 2018’s film version, attempts to do.
Getting too excited about certain movies and TV shows just isn’t as stigmatized as it used to be when Cline was growing up, collecting Star Wars action figures and dressing up as a Jedi. “Well, I don’t know that Star Wars kids were ever completely uncool,” Cline told Newsweek. “I was a child when A New Hope came out, and among most young men and women, jocks and stoners and brainy academic kids…they all loved Star Wars. It was just that some of us took it a little further.” Now, cosplayers are celebrities in their own right and making movie-inspired toys, especially those $10 Funko Pop! figurines.
Some of Cline’s story feels prescient and clever, though. Ready Player One the movie, which Cline co-wrote with Zak Penn, predicts a sci-fi universe where most of the world gets its kicks in a virtual reality open-world game called the OASIS, partially because the real world has suffered from economic and environmental collapse. Cline’s hero, Wade (Tye Sheridan), lives in a suburban trailer park called The Stacks; the inhabitants have placed their mobile homes in giant poor-man skyscrapers, and they climb up the scaffolding to sleep at night.
There’s also the makeup of the villain in Ready Player One, Nolan Sorrento, played by Ben Mendelsohn, a billionaire who uses the OASIS as grounds to make a profit. His dastardly plans—fill the player screen with ads, employ hopeless geeks to help him collect trivia—feel goofy, until he suddenly starts killing people in the real world to make a buck. The offices of IOI will feel uncomfortably familiar to any writer who’s ever written “explainers” for a digital media company, collecting an hourly wage and providing clicks—and money—for executives who will never see the movie or play the video game they’re describing.
About halfway through the film, Wade confronts Sorrento for pretending to be a fan of the movies he holds dear, like The Breakfast Club. It’s such a heated exchange that it might surprise the average viewer. “A fanboy knows a hater,” Wade spits, uttering a line that has gotten the movie some ridicule. “Some people don’t like the phrase,” Cline admitted, “but you can tell if someone is enthusiastic and full of love. It doesn’t have to be for geeky pop culture. It could be music or another genre of film.”
Why, though, is this teen boy so angry that a grown man doesn’t remember what high school the kids in The Breakfast Club attended? “Wade’s contention,” Cline explained, “is that Sorrento is pretending to be a fan of the things Wade loves, to win him over and use him for his own ends. It’s like Satan tempting Jesus in the desert, showing him everything that could be his if he joins the bad guys.” Sorrento offers Wade a high-tech gaming chair like this, and access to all the cool in-game skins and upgrades.
“Wade is a kid who has grown up in the OASIS,” Cline said. “It’s the only place he feels at home and valued, and this Sorrento guy is only pretending to care about Halliday. He’s a capitalist and a businessman, and willing to commit real murder to achieve his capitalist ends.” But wait: Isn’t Cline hoping to make money off moviegoers who just want to see a live-action Gundam? “It’s not necessarily bad to want to make money,” Cline said, “but it’s bad to do so at the expense of others’ happiness and freedom.” If Sorrento is the bad capitalist, Halliday is the good one, according to Ready Player One.
Halliday, the game’s creator, played by director Steven Spielberg’s muse-of-the-decade Mark Rylance, is a Willy Wonka archetype with sad, watery eyes. He hates adding “rules” to his game, and he hates marketing and working with people, as he feels awkward and out of place. Before he dies in the real world, Halliday constructs three puzzles that only gamers true of heart (and true of…trivia knowledge) will be able to figure out. Though Wonka’s end was to ensure the kid inheriting his wealth was selfless and just, Halliday seems to want a kid who likes all the stuff he likes and is interested enough in him to rustle through his recorded memories.
The whole enterprise is meant to find a “true fan” of both the OASIS and the geek ephemera Halliday loves. That setup, which made perfect sense when Cline’s novel was published in 2011, feels outdated in a world where everyone can name the Avengers’ lineup and follows Deadpool on Twitter.
“It’s strange to see the geeks inherit the earth for sure,” Cline said, “to go from being downtrodden to controlling the entertainment industry. To resent geek culture becoming mainstream is just being a gatekeeper. Everyone’s welcome over here on this geeky side of the fence, you know? I love people who unabashedly love things and wear their passion on their sleeve, whether it’s for cosplay or building replicas. I love enthusiasm in a public sphere, and it should be there for everybody, not just people who follow sports teams.”
Ready Player One hits theaters Friday.