February 26, 2020

The Jewish Dimensions of ‘Ready Player One’

I recommend putting on the glasses and watching “Ready Player One” — Steven Spielberg’s latest high-octane adventure story, about a boy who saves the world — in 3-D. The film is even better when you put on your JD (Jewish Dimensional™) glasses.

“Ready Player One” is an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2012 novel of the same name. It takes place in a not-too-distant dystopian future when people have given up on fixing the world’s problems and spend their time playing an immersive virtual reality video game of infinite possibilities called OASIS.

The players revere the game’s creator and study his love for ’80s pop culture like a religious text. When he dies, he bequeaths the game to the first player who can solve a series of challenges and puzzles, but an evil corporation enslaves thousands of players to win the contest. Together with his friends, the hero, Parzival, works to defeat the evil corporation and save their virtual world from monetization.

Unfortunately, critics argue, Parzival and his friends spend all their time saving a fake world when they should be saving the real world. However, the morally questionable message of this film seems to be that saving the game is the correct choice.

Initially, I agreed with the critics. But when I put on my Jewish Dimensional™ glasses, I saw it differently.

The rabbis of the Talmud teach that it is worth creating a world for one person and that each person is like a world. We all contain a dark, heavy world of despair. We also contain a world of infinite possibilities, creativity and hope. We need both to live. Without hope, the struggles of life can consume us. If we are unaware of the darkness, we can get lost in our fantasies and neglect important parts of life.

Today’s social media culture vacillates between broadcasting extremist voices and silencing them.

The real world and virtual world of “Ready Player One” are symbols of the worlds inside us all. The “real world” in “Ready Player One” is the harsh, finite world of darkness. The game is the optimistic, infinite world of light. Parzival and his friends save the world of light. Nothing could be nobler.

Spielberg’s film changes the challenges from Cline’s original novel. There, the challenges rely more on encyclopedic knowledge of ’80 s nerd culture. Spielberg creates challenges that measure and stretch the moral character of the contestants. One challenge encourages thinking outside the box, another encourages taking a leap of faith, while a third reminds us that winning isn’t everything.

In its preachiest moment, “Ready Player One” reminds us: “As terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real.”

Today’s social media culture vacillates between broadcasting extremist voices and silencing them. The message of “Ready Player One” is that to save our world, we need to restore balance and moderation using hope, kindness and creativity.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.