While watching Ramin Bahrani’s updated take on Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 (you can read my review here), with its excellent use of Michael Shannon’s fury and intensity, its timely commentary on our nationalistic political climate, and its visually compelling reminders that we are living in a police state every second of every day, I kept thinking of Ready Player One. “Huh,” I wondered. “Maybe this is what Steven Spielberg thought he was making.” [Spoilers for both films follow]
Should we consider Spielberg’s Ready Player One a success? The usual indicators point to yes: the famed director’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel brought in $575 million on a $175 million budget (although I doubt that includes the film’s considerable marketing costs), has a 73% on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 64 on Metacritic. There is an undeniable swell of fanboy support—one that wasn’t shared here at Pajiba—that buoyed the film as people reveled in the movie’s countless references to other pop culture: The Shining, King Kong, Bill and Ted, Dark Crystal, on and on and on.
And yet I have this feeling that this won’t be a movie Spielberg is remembered for, and that Ready Player One really just functioned as a way for him to play around with modern CGI by adapting a work instead of having to create his own thing (kind of like his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG). This is a movie that wants to have a message (too much time spent online is bad, go outside!) but ignored that the execution of that message may not be ideal (when you go outside, you’ll be reminded of how much the future sucks, but hey, the ’80s were pretty cool!). A dystopian future is presented in 2045, but the only examples of it are seen in economic inequality (the Stacks, the vertical trailer park where Tye Sheridan’s Wade Watts lives) and a capitalist company, IOI, which wants to take advantage of another capitalist enterprise, the Oasis. There are no stakes here. “Hero” Wade ends up rich while the world outside continues to suffer. The Oasis gets shut down for two days a week, but it continues functioning as a gigantic commercial for the pop culture featured inside of it. The society in which most everything sucks isn’t criticized or changed, because people still live in virtual reality for the majority of the time, so who cares about fixing the real world?
The dystopian future of Ready Player One is essentially a prop, background dressing, a way for the movie to seem serious while worshiping at the altar of Oasis creator Halliday, played by frequent Spielberg featured player Mark Rylance. (When the police showed up out of nowhere at the end of the movie to arrest Ben Mendelsohn’s weird-toothed villain Nolan Sorrento, who up until that moment had been ordering assassinations on the regular with zero repercussions, I actually laughed out loud at the absurdity of it.) No character talks about why they enjoy anything; they just seek them out because they were Halliday’s favorites. The featured pop culture doesn’t say anything or stand for anything or reflect anything. Author Ernest Cline liked those things, so Halliday likes those things, so everyone likes those things. There is no independent thought here.
Bahrani’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, though, goes in the other direction by actually giving weight to the novels, movies, and music mentioned, and depicting a future rife with danger. The world of this HBO Films release doesn’t seem so different from our own: big glass skyscrapers and video billboards, a 24-hour news cycle, tree-lined suburbs hiding secrets, social media running rampant, crime and punishment being presented as entertainment. Strangely, both Ready Player One and Fahrenheit 451 are set in middle-America Ohio—the former in Columbus, the latter in Cleveland—but while Spielberg’s vision was one of extreme, but cliched, poverty, where the only “real” people the film depicted were concerned with Oasis accessories, Bahrani’s is effective because of how matter-of-factly it presents a world in which children are encouraged at a young age to destroy information, where fact has become fiction, where government control is accepted and even desired. The dystopian future of Fahrenheit 451 isn’t a caricature like that of Ready Player One, and is instead more disturbing because of its normalcy.
What Bahrani does to great effect is use mirroring, wide angles, and fish-eye lenses to craft a visual style in which it looks like everyone is being watched all the time—at home or in public, by other people or by their devices. Ready Player One often had Mendelsohn’s villain watching the actions of its heroes, but the film’s constant use of video game imagery added a level of cartoonish remove. Bahrani’s vision is both brusquely stark (how often he displays Michael B. Jordan’s Guy Montag and Michael Shannon’s Captain Beatty centered and alone in their homes, watched by their Yuxie personal devices, or silhouetted against the destructive fire) and unsettlingly experimental (humongous displays of the men are duplicated on those sidescrapers; their reflections are twisted and distorted in their bathrooms, their theoretically most private of places). No place is safe.
That constant implied threat—and how we see it actualized in the flame—is what helps add importance to the literature, music, and films made illegal in Fahrenheit 451. The film’s opening credits feature William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, works by Gabriel García Márquez and Faust, and texts in Arabic and Chinese, all smoldering and burned; later on, Beatty picks up a copy of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Montag steals Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, and resistance fighters identify themselves by the names of books they’ve memorized, like Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Mao’s Little Red Book, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.
In a way, this is like Ready Player One—people have their favorites, like the vinyl version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” that Sofia Boutella’s Clarisse has, and a VHS copy of Taxi Driver that Montag’s father had hidden away—but fundamentally their interest is preservation, not mimicry. They want a world that acknowledges the contributions of these artists and creators, not a virtual one that recreates them. The texts they choose speak to this, and we understand why. When Montag realizes that the confusion and discontent of Notes from Underground mimics his own, he’s driven to act, to seek out the resistance; even Beatty, a devoted Salamander, writes down quotes from various books he’s burned on scraps of paper that he then destroys. The excerpts have burrowed into some part of him in a way he can’t deny, even as he continues to burn. That’s character development! That’s the good shit! That’s not just liking something because some dude pretending to be a wizard told you to.
We see people in Fahrenheit 451 wearing VR headsets like those in Ready Player One, but the movie doesn’t spend much time exploring that imaginary world because the focus of Bahrani’s film is the true reality and its dangers—gamification of news, skepticism toward objective facts, treating actors of the state whose business in violence as heroes. That is the dystopian future that could await us, and it’s one that still offers hope and courage despite overwhelming paranoia and risk. Those are the perils and the optimism that Ready Player One never quite makes real, and while I’m sure fewer people will watch Fahrenheit 451 than Spielberg’s latest blockbuster, it’s Bahrani’s film that holds more relevance to our present and our future.