Ready Player One, now in cinemas for over a week, have been met with much enthusiasm within Passion Times this week, with Passion Times founder Wong Yeungtat having devoted at least three episodes on various shows discussing issues behind the movie, as well as acknowledging elements of fandom within the film. Online critics in Hong Kong are divided, with fanboys and fangirls who squealed with delight upon seeing certain characters appearing as easter eggs during the movie, especially when Gundam RX-78-2 made an appearance during the last stretch of the film (I know I did), while some hard core members of fandom criticised the movie as an over-rated appeal to nostalgia and Spielberg being a “tryhard” for pretentiously seeking approval from fandom. Wong Yeungtat saw past all of that to see the contemporary messages seeping out from within the movie which talk of issues from our own real life society, such as the Oasis being the reflection of our social media and online habits; and the illusion that our social media networks is a “democratic” social forum when in fact it is the property of private companies, as players in Oasis believed the virtual system belongs to everyone when in fact it is the property of its creator, James Halliday.
Perhaps Wong Yeungtat will be discussing them later on, but so far he hasn’t mentioned an issue in the film which I noticed. The issue surfaced only in a monologue line narrated by the main character Wade Watts during the beginning of the movie and in a quick juxtaposition close to the end of the film, but it does resonate with today’s Hong Kong society.
At the start of the film, in the sequence where Wade Watts (a.k.a. Parzival) is seen slowly sliding down from his aunt’s “apartment” on his way to his “lair”, his voice narrated about The Stack and his city (known as Columbus) and informing the audience on the basic history of the Oasis and its founder James Halliday. Watts quickly made a passing note that society as a whole no longer cares about solving the problems of the world but try to outlive them, as the cinematic sequence pan through people living in The Stack: a literal miscellaneous stack of cars, caravans, shipping containers and other means of habitation somehow balanced on top of each other, and its inhabitants ranged from singles to families, all cramped into tiny habitations and making do with what they have. For Hong Kongers, the montage surely reminds us of our reality, where many of us have given up trying to stand up to our social problems and just try to etch out a bearable existence instead; while others amongst us live in what we call “battery homes” or “coffin rooms” that are stacked on top of each other, where just like in the movies, the occupations of these “battery homes” and “coffin rooms” ranges from singles to families.
The people in the film chose to escape their reality by being completely immersed in the Oasis, the virtual reality world that is something like World of Warcraft gaming platform, Facebook, online forums, the Deep Web and the World Wide Web in general all rolled into one. In Oasis, people set up their own avatar and character which can be and usually is completely different to their actual person in reality, so while you are a housewife in reality, you can set yourself up as a Lara Croft character out to kick some arse! They can be a total weakling outside of this virtual reality while being an acclaimed warrior in this virtual world. This is just like online platforms in our own reality as mentioned before, where we can setup an avatar of ourselves that is wholly and totally different to ourselves. We can be weak to a point as a real person while making our avatar online to be invincible and indomitable.
This great divide between the real and the virtual could be seen in the juxtaposition of two scenarios close to the end of the film. In one cinematic sequence (worthy of World of Warcraft), we the audience saw players in Oasis (known as gunters) rallying to Wade Watts’ avatr Parzival to fight against agents of IOI trying to hold a blockade against other people trying to solve the final puzzle for the last key that would unlock the ultimate easter egg, which would grant its holder the ownership to all of Oasis (one easter egg to rule them all?). Here we see them fighting to the death in their avatar trying to break through the blockade but this was followed soon after a montage of the female antagonist F’nale Zandor, the Head of IOI operations, “zeroing” in on the actual location of the main protagonists. In this montage, Zandor looked outside her van’s window and saw everyone on the streets having logged onto the Oasis and fighting agents of IOI, but in the real world they were in their VR visors kicking and punching nothing. The message from this juxtaposition is that while everyone was fighting valiantly in virtual reality, in the reality that really mattered – where they can actually be killed – all they are doing is ridiculously attacking nothing. Right at the end, when the arch-villain Nolan Sorrento arrived in front of the van to kill Wade Watts after the former activated the Catalyst that killed everyone’s avatar on Planet Doom in the Oasis, none of the players in real life that surrounded the van were able to show the valour they had whilst in the Oasis, this again pointed to that great divide.
For anyone who followed Hong Kong’s socio-political development closely, this should resonate with us. Is it not true that while many of us profess valour and courage online by paying lip service to fighting against China (the IOI of our reality) but when the battle is actually upon us, we cower back in weakness with none of our online bravado? While online, the avatars we created talk of revolutions and uprising but how many of us actually follow through with it in real life?
The point of Ready Player One isn’t a “squeal-fest” for fandom or appeal to nostalgia, for as Wade Watts said at the end of the film, what matters is what is outside of our virtual realities.