Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts and Olivia Cooke as Samantha Cook (a.k.a. Art3mis) in “Ready Player One.” (Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. Pictures)
Opinion writer

This post discusses the plot of “Ready Player One” in some detail. If you haven’t read Ernest Cline’s novel, from which the movie is adapted, and want to see the film completely cold, I’d stop reading at this point.

If women and people of color get to control an opiate of the masses, does that somehow make it different? Or is an opiate an opiate no matter who mixes the chemical cocktail? That question lingers behind current progressive arguments for diversity in Hollywood, which generally insist that if traditionally marginalized people acquire power in the entertainment industry, their presence will change the game in all sorts of unspecified but presumably powerful ways. It’s also one of the assumptions animating Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel “Ready Player One,” which opens on Thursday.

“Ready Player One” takes place in 2045, in an America where economic inequality has skyrocketed and life is so miserable that most people, including Wade (Tye Sheridan), spend most of their time hanging out in a vast virtual reality known as the Oasis designed by the reclusive genius James Halliday (a beautifully melancholy Mark Rylance). When Halliday dies, he announces that he has embedded a final game within the Oasis and that the winner will inherit control of his digital universe — by now, the most powerful economic system on the planet — as well as his vast fortune. Wade, whose avatar in the game is known as Parzival, and many other denizens of the Oasis become fanatically devoted to the quest, devouring all the information they can find about Halliday’s life and the 1980s-era popular culture that he adored.

They aren’t alone. The giant corporation Innovative Online Industries, and its head, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), are racing the individual gamers to the prize, using indentured labor to scour the Oasis for clues. Wade and his like-minded hunters see the Oasis as a world where anything is possible — though “anything” tends to mean fantasies such as climbing Mount Everest with Batman. Sorrento treats the Oasis like a business opportunity, a chance to charge tiered memberships for access and to saturate up to 80 percent of players’ fields of vision with paid advertising.

The scenario in “Ready Player One” seems extreme, but it’s not so different from the fundamental dynamics at work between fans and corporations in the entertainment industry today. Wade and his friends, including Aech (Lena Waithe), Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki), don’t love the Oasis not because it represents some ideal of independent artistry — in fact, it’s flooded with licensed versions of video game, superhero and anime characters. They love it because the game gives them the opportunity to live inside their fantasies, whether that means dressing in Buckaroo Banzai’s suit to go to a club or wandering around the Overlook Hotel from “The Shining.” And Sorrento and his fellow IOI honchos differ from contemporary entertainment executives mostly in that they aren’t very good at disguising their eagerness to monetize fans’ passions.

Though the conflict between Wade and Sorrento is meant to seem epic, there’s something strangely small-scale about the core of their disagreement. As BuzzFeed critic Alison Willmore put it on Twitter, “Ready Player One” is “a super dark story about how the world is a disaster but all its main character cares about is keeping ads out of his [massively multiplayer online role-playing game].” It’s as if “Ready Player One” were an epic movie about whether it’s okay for the streaming service Hulu to charge a few extra dollars a month to let viewers skip the 30-second spots that air a few times per episode.

While Cline’s novel and Spielberg’s adaptation both suggest that it’s probably good for people to spend some time outside of the Oasis developing their real-world relationships, neither is capable of grappling with the idea that, whoever owns it, preserving the Oasis means preserving the status quo.

If IOI wins control of the environment, spending time there may be more expensive and irritating, given the ad placements IOI hopes to sell. If Wade and his diverse group of friends win control of the Oasis, they intend to preserve it as a purer experience and run it without the abuses routinely practiced by IOI, including encouraging people to rack up debt they can’t pay off, purchasing those debts and moving the debtors into IOI labor camps.

But as bad as debt peonage is, the biggest problem with the world of “Ready Player One” isn’t that IOI is press-ganging people into spending their time in the Oasis. It’s that reality is such a hopeless mess that everyone would rather escape it. Closing the Oasis for a couple of days to force people to spend time with their actual friends and family doesn’t actually make a country defined by savage economic inequality, environmental degradation and social unrest a more appealing place to live. If Wade and his friends make the Oasis a more appealing place to spend time, saving it from becoming an ad-cluttered wasteland, they may make escape even more enticing, sapping energy from making the world habitable and enjoyable again. Tweaking the exact organic composition of a drug doesn’t make it something other than a narcotic.

(It’s also true that “Ready Player One” quietly rebukes the idea that giving women and people of color the opportunity to tell their own stories would automatically result in very different stories getting told. Aech’s race and gender don’t mean that she plays as a version of Audre Lorde; rather, her avatar is a formidable, orc-like brawler and engineer, and Wade spends much of the movie assuming she’s a man. Art3mis isn’t just a woman; her avatar is the Oasis’s version of a Cool Girl, an expert gamer who looks equally good in leather motorcycle gear or a ballgown, drives a motorcycle and is lethal with a gun.)

On a smaller scale, this dynamic is also at play in conversations about the contemporary American entertainment industry. None of this is to say that fighting to get power and opportunities in Hollywood for women, people of color, people with disabilities and members of other underrepresented communities is a worthless task. Money is valuable. Chances to decide who gets employed on a project are valuable. The ability to tell your story is valuable. But it’s possible to acknowledge all of this and to recognize that putting Kathleen Kennedy in charge of Lucasfilm or tapping Ava DuVernay to direct a $100 million adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time” is proof that the corporate entertainment industry is very good at adapting just enough to endure in its present form. Developments such as these are preemptive reforms made by savvy companies aimed at heading off a revolt, not proof that some revolution is underway in Hollywood, much less the wider world.

Maybe we’re lucky that we can only escape into Wakanda or Themyscira for a couple of hours, and as observers, rather than participants. We may find it disappointing that our fantasies still come with strict time limits, but those restrictions are a useful safeguard against forgetting that the real world exists, and there’s a lot of work for us to do out there in it.