There is a lot of talk these days about finding and following your passion. This talk intends to stir us up from languishing in mundane, antiseptic lives. If only we’d have the courage, the restlessness, the verve to just stop doing the things we hate doing and then start doing the things that bring us life, the whole world would be a better place, right?* The assumption in that exhortation is that we all have passions, or, more mildly, preoccupations, and that seems true – we all enjoy things in the world that exist independent of us, realms of interest that we can enter into and explore for the sheer pleasure of it.**
This dynamic is at the heart of Ready Player One, the latest film from Steven Spielberg. In this story, near-future society has become oriented around an immersive virtual reality game called OASIS that everyone enters via vision-encompassing headsets and various configurations of haptic gloves and suits. The maker of the game, Halliday (an endearing Mark Rylance; I’m so happy he and Spielberg have discovered each other), has recently died, and upon his death, he released a video revealing that he has hidden a series of keys in the game that open a door to an egg that will grant the winner possession of OASIS – “Willy TRONka.” Halliday was obsessed with 80s pop culture, so OASIS is replete with 80s paraphernalia. Players, i.e. all humanity, apparently, are allowed to shape their avatars as they see fit as well, so the virtual world of OASIS is a glorious hodgepodge of pop-culture references from the past 50 years.
Enter Parzival/Wade Watts, a poverty-stricken young man from his city’s most downtrodden district. He is on a quest to find the keys, his vehicle of choice is the DeLorean from Back to the Future, and he has a few friends with whom he frequently meets up and plays the game. He does not know them in real life. He hardly knows anyone in real life, though we only get the briefest glimpse of his life, and it seems calibrated to be the kind of life it makes sense to escape from into a video game where you can be anyone or anything.
There is a lot of this kind of calibration in Ready Player One. This movie is one slick machine - a blockbuster about a world where blockbusters have so colonized the hearts and minds of the masses that the only creativity that still exists is in the reshuffling of references and the careful recreation of pop-culture icons, for pay. It’s a chocolate egg inside a chocolate egg inside a chocolate egg. And everyone is happy about it, including the audience, myself included. Ready Player One is rad. The scene that encompasses the second key challenge is one of the best scenes Spielberg has ever directed. The surprise of that scene is half the fun, so anyone who spoils it for you should be derezed.
Ready Player One is also a tad bit disturbing, because it doesn’t really question the quality of a world in which everyone is obsessed with 80s pop-culture and no one really interacts much in the real world. The film nods to the value of a physical existence in the end, but only obligatorily. The fact that Steven Spielberg of all people made this movie that both celebrates late-20th century pop-culture and implicitly questions that celebration is what makes all this interesting.
Side-stepping the chance to be a killjoy though, I do find it enlivening to see people enjoying things they love. We do all, pretty much, have passions. That we spend all the time we can pursuing those passions, mining them for joy, discovering new wonders in them, is fantastic. It’s not worship exactly. It’s more annunciation - “Here is something good! Love it with me!” A neat trick of life is to follow the path of creation back through the things you love to the things that inspired the people who made the things you love, thereby discovering more things to love and enlarging your understanding of that realm. Carrying it forward, you are able to create your own spin on those things, because you have a deep knowledge of how the things you love work. It’s about getting to know your materials and how they work together.
And though the material in Ready Player One may be recently reconstituted, the reshuffling work is essentially creative.*** All human creativity is done using existing materials. In theological terms we say that only God creates ex nihilio, “out of nothing,” and humanity creates ex materia, or “out of materials.” Even new stories are new only to an extent. Shakespeare was a fanboy of medieval literature. Michelangelo’s David is, um, based on the Bible. Flood myths predate the writing of the book of Genesis. The mere facts of the characters or plot are of secondary importance to how the story is told by a storyteller. The “how” is what’s particular to you. Only you will reshuffle your favored materials in your particular way guided by your particular concerns, bringing a new arrangement of things into the world.
This is our role in creation. It’s a good job. We get to work with God to “make more” out of the material God gave us. So we need to always be paying attention to the kind of world we are creating as we reshuffle and reorder this material. The world of Ready Player One needs a lot of work, and I’m suspicious that the characters aren’t really headed toward making it better in the end. Oh well. At least they’re having a good time.
*Paradoxically, when we try to make our passions profitable, we often find them quickly drained of what once filled them with joy. When they are “mere” enthusiasms, we give ourselves to them; when they become means of income, we must take from them. There is no shame in earning a living doing something you can stand while pursuing your passion with whatever time, however minute, you can give it.
**I’m not sure this is particular to humans. My dog loves playing tug-of-war for no discernible reason other than because she finds it fun.
***And essentially human, I think. My dog doesn’t do this sort of thing without my help, though with my help, she can herd sheep, complete in agility competitions, and reorganize her toys for hours. My working with her is a form of this kind of human stewardship of creation.