Over the recent holiday break I found myself in the movie theater to watch The Last Jedi. Given how profoundly disappointing and unimaginative the movie was (something I may explore in another post), I left the theater thinking about an entirely different movie.
In fact, I began to think of this other movie before The Last Jedi even started. One of the movie trailers at the beginning was from Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming Ready Player One. And it looked genuinely innovative and culturally fascinating.
During the many moments of boredom during the main attraction, I began to reflect upon what this new movie says about the world we live in (or, for some, the world we pretend to not live in).
Based upon the 2011 book of the same name by Ernest Cline, the film is a futuristic dystopian drama set in 2045. An energy crisis has destroyed the world, creating a miserable existence for millions.
In order to escape the world they live in, people have turned to a virtual reality world fittingly named OASIS. In this world they can take on new identities (AVATARS) and live a life of fulfillment, excitement, and pleasure.
The protagonist, Wade Watts, lives almost his entire life in the virtual world–even going to school in simulation. His relationships and his identity are all bound up with his online existence. In the film, he is drawn into a life or death competition to find an “easter egg” hidden in the OASIS worth billions.
Ready Player One and The Matrix
Of course, a plot line like this will draw quick comparisons to other virtual reality movies, The Matrix being one of the most obvious. But it is precisely here that Ready Player One reveals that it is notably different from what has come before. Ready Player One is very much the product of the present cultural moment.
In The Matrix, the goal of the heroes (and the values expressed in the movie) was to free people from the virtual reality world. Even if the Matrix was more pleasurable and more comfortable for people, the goal was still to release people from it. It was viewed as a prison.
Although it is a bit ironic (and perhaps counter-intuitive), The Matrix is really a movie that values the real world above the fake world. What matters is not personal pleasure, but truth.
This is most evident in the contrast between Morpheus and the Judas-like-betrayer named Cypher. Morpheus is willing to live in a cold, dark world because it is the real world. In fact, before Neo takes the red pill, Morpheus reminds him, “Remember. All I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.”
In contrast, Cypher hates the real world. He even betrays his friends so he can be reinserted into the Matrix. For him, the lie is better than the truth. He even states, “I think that the Matrix can be more real than this world.”
Cypher laments, “Why oh why didn’t I take the blue pill?” (For thus unfamiliar with the film, the ‘blue pill’ keeps a person in the virtual reality world of the Matrix).
Ready Player One and Postmodernity
It is here that Ready Player One takes a different path. From what I can tell (not having seen the film, obviously), this is a movie where people willing and voluntarily enter a virtual world. In other words, they have purposefully placed their identity in a fake world.
And people do this not only because the fake world is better than the crummy world they actually live in, but they do this because the fake world is, to some extent, controllable. They can make themselves who they want to be. They can change their looks. Their sex. Their talents. Their wealth.
In short, in the virtual world, we are the creator. We get to play God.
Needless to say, Ready Player One, seems to be a film where postmodernity has come of age. People are no longer trapped in virtually reality. They run towards it. They celebrate it.
Put differently, the average citizen in 2045 (and 2018!) would quite happily take the “blue pill” offered by Morpheus. They like their fake world just fine, thank you very much.
Apparently, in the nearly 20 year gap between The Matrix and Ready Player One, much in our culture has changed. These two films exemplify the cultural shift we have all been seeing over the last generation.
Ready Player One and Christianity
For our present world–mired in conversations about transgenderism, the fluidity of sexual identity, and the ability to “self-identify” as virtually anything–this new film will no doubt strike a chord.
Even more, it will resonate with people who now care very little about truth. What matter is what I feel, or what works, or what satisfies. For postmoderns, truth has got nothing to do with it.
And for others, the movie’s premise will no doubt justify their lifestyle. “If Wade Watts can create his own reality, then by golly so can I,” they might think. “If I want to ‘identify’ as a woman, even though I am a man, who can say otherwise?”
But it is precisely in this context that Christianity proves to be so distinctive. We cannot and should not offer people a utopian world in the present (that is the mistake of the health-wealth movement). But we can offer them the real world. And we can also offer them a glorious world in the future.
Thus, Christianity offers two worlds, so to speak, and both of them are genuine. We are honest about the problems of the present world. We do not pretend it is something other than what it is. And we are honest about the greatness of the world to come.
In contrast, Postmoderns only have one world–their own manufactured one. And it is fake.
In many ways, then, postmodern people are living in a fashion similar to someone on a drug-induced hallucination. It may feel good at the time. But it is temporary. It isn’t real. And eventually they will come crashing down.
And when people do come crashing down, we can offer the truth of the Gospel to heal them.
Great post Michael! Really good analysis.
Adam Parker says
Michael, I think you are right in your discussion of the dangers of VR. The desire for a truly manipulable, immersive experience really is a dim reflection of postmodernity. I think VR is something (or has the potential to be something) far beyond mere entertainment or amusements for many – it will become a way of life.
There are people who already choose virtual lives over their real lives without VR even being a factor. Imagine how far down the rabbit hole many will be willing to go once VR becomes affordable, feasible, and ubiquitous.
I would suggest that your criticism of the film might be better supplemented by reading the book. It’s a little spoiler-y for me to say this, but the film ends on a note that affirms that the real world and the real person on the other end of the “connection” really are more important than the illusions that a VR world would help us create. Ultimately the book affirms that it is the truth and reality that we ought to desire, not the illusion. My reading of the novel was that there is a reason the book’s world is dystopian: it’s pathetic, sad, and distressing that people would rather spend more time in a fantasy world than in the real one. I felt that all the way through the book. In my take, the book pushes us to want better than that kind of world.
Really enjoyed this post Michael. The appeal of video games in myself and for young men in general is exactly what you write of “Ready Player 1”. We find reality…Difficult. Empty. Frustrating. Uncontrollable. So, why not spend our time in another world where we are not bound by the unforgiving lines of truth? But, as you point out, whether it’s alternate realities or false truths believed in the spirit of post modernism–falsehoods provide a poor foundation to build your house on. The collapse is not a question of if but of when.
Therefore the impetus is then on us to be people of truth. For us to be proclaiming the hard truth of the world we live in now–and the glorious truth that is offered to the saints, both today and in the life to come through Christ Jesus.
Katherine Powers says
When I read your post I had flashbacks to one I wrote not too long ago. VR is a dangerous world but oh so comfortable when it is one of our own making. https://theologicalcudchewing.wordpress.com/2017/10/25/assured/
“In short, in the virtual world, we are the creator. We get to play God…Postmoderns only have one world–their own manufactured one. And it is fake.”
That’s the whole point: postmodernism is what happens when mankind turns from worshipping the Creator and instead worship the creature (Romans 1).
Ramon Noens says
Great article Michael,
The headline Caught my attention! While I was reading the article I found that I had many of the same thoughts that you did while watching The Matrix movies. This was also the case when watching the movie “Surrogates” with Bruce Willis. What struck me the most in both movies was the thin threads of biblical truth/concepts woven throughout, whether realized or not by the original authors or producers.
Kevin Gordon says
Thanks for the info on Ready Player One. Being a fan of Philip K. Dick movies Blade Runner, Total Recall (first one) and Minority Report, this sounds like it is up my alley. I also agree with you about The Last Jedi. Once they have completely done away with both the Sith and Jedi they might as well change the name to “Star Bores”.
The mirage is strong. Being a bit older now we dont rush out to see the latest and greatest production being pumped out with all its franchised attachments on mass.
There was a 70’s movie years ago called Westworld where you could choose your fantasy and engage life like robots. But an error occurred and the robot world turned on the holiday/fantasy makers.
The Bible strikes me as the most honest book I have ever read when it comes to human nature with its expressions of good and evil as it points us to God as our only true hope.
Without wanting to sound bahhumbuggish, every story ever told will mirror the Bible in some way or be connected to it. And that is the beauty and wisdom of God that has every angle covered in one book for the ages.
Nice post and a good deconstruction/observation of what is really going on behind the scenes in this post modern world on the run.