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The Second Screen on the Big Screen

A slew of new movies, including Steven Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One,’ use the daily habits of the internet as the basis for story. But has a life online stifled imagination in Hollywood?

Warner Bros./Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A woman wants pizza, but she doesn’t want to leave the house and she doesn’t want to use the phone and she doesn’t want to deal with the world. So the woman pulls up a website on her desktop computer and places an order, a frictionless experience with a clear goal: pizza and isolation. This quaint scene is commonplace in 2018. It also takes place in a movie from 1995.

It has been 23 years since the Sandra Bullock–starring thriller The Net premiered. It’s a movie that was widely regarded as low-rent, high-concept poppycock when it was released, a The Man Who Knew Too Much for a viewing public that didn’t know enough about “the net” itself. More than two decades later, it is—in its schlocky way—prescient. Bullock plays Angela Bennett, a systems analyst who telecommutes from Venice, California, to a software company in San Francisco. Her identity and a valuable piece of hardware is stolen in an elaborate plot to cover up the death of a U.S. government official, which may or may not have been organized by a cyberterrorist group seeking to install an international disinformation campaign. The Net isn’t terribly good as movies go, but it is more real, more current, than I suspected two decades ago. It even looks like a meme.

The Net arrived at a time when an anxiety about the limitless power of the internet briefly consumed the minds of Hollywood’s screenwriters and the development slates of its executives. This moment also produced Disclosure, a woefully misguided “What if the woman was the workplace sexual abuser?” erotic thriller from Michael Crichton and Barry Levinson, which culminates in a virtual reality showdown between stars Demi Moore and Michael Douglas. There were others like it in this period: Virtuosity, a Denzel Washington crime story in which a VR serial killer somehow enters the real world; Hackers, a faux-cyberpunk tale of web rebellion starring a 19-year-old Angelina Jolie; and Strange Days, Kathryn Bigelow’s sci-fi neo-noir about disembodied virtual experiences in a dystopian future. All of these films—mostly lousy—appeared within 12 months of one another, all products of a society contorting itself to reconcile a surge in home computing that anticipated the first big internet boom. Windows 95 was made available to the public just four weeks after The Net hit theaters. It would be years before we could imagine the dot-com bubble bursting—it hadn’t yet bubbled. Our feelings about these changes were mirrored in the movies as fear and beguilement—a bunch of rubes trying to make sense of this darned technology eager to eat our minds. Not much has changed in the intervening three decades. The internet is still eating our minds—and now, more than ever, the movies themselves.

This week sees the release of Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s nostalgia-blinkered hit novel about an Oklahoma boy in a future world whose inhabitants live their lives largely inside a virtual reality game called the OASIS. The characters are strapped into headgear and haptic devices for as many hours a day as possible—imprisonment as ecstasy. It’s a vehicle perfect for a film director as consumed by the past as the future. When Spielberg introduced the film earlier this month at the South by Southwest Film Festival, he proudly announced, “I’m a gamer. I’ve been a gamer ever since 1974, where I played the first Pong game on Martha’s Vineyard while filming Jaws.” Spielberg was playing to the home crowd, not so subtly alluding to one of his iconic achievements while flattering the geeknoscenti in the audience. But the OASIS also presents a moral conundrum for the filmmaker.

“For Steven, it’s a question he deals with on a daily basis in his life with his wife and his family: Would you rather be online or would you rather live in the real world?” Spielberg’s longtime producing partner, Kristie Macosko Krieger, told the L.A. Times.

That feels like a curious question for a massively successful artist and businessperson to be consumed by—reality, after all, is conquerable when you’re Steven Spielberg. But it’s a feeling that may resonate with the millions of viewers of Ready Player One, whether they’re gobsmacked or groaning over the barrage of Reagan-era cultural trinkets that decorate Spielberg’s movie, from DeLoreans to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Gundam. “When I wrote Ready Player One, it was like building a bonfire or a searchlight announcing, ‘Here’s what I love and here’s why I love it—and don’t you love it too?’” Cline said recently. That much is clearly true, as the movie—a fun, frivolous diversion as invested in its inanity as its message of where life is best lived—is eager to broadcast the source material’s obsessive, breathless enthusiasms. But its native anxiety is trenchant—are we missing out on human connection by sequestering ourselves to the imagined worlds the internet can provide?

“So many people spend so much of their time online. I think that already the real world suffers from neglect due to the amount of entertainment that we have,” Cline said. “Every movie, every song, every piece of art—everything that can be digitized, you have instant access to on the internet. It’s easy to escape into escapism now more than ever.”

This is both true and a cliché. We know that the flourishing power of choice, that pesky torrent of content, is making people less connected, and often dumber. Our brains are decentralized. We can’t even make eye contact anymore—we’re too busy looking at something in our hands. It isn’t just Spielbergian event movies idiosyncratically and self-consciously unwiring our circuitry. Dozens of recent movies dramatize the act of vanishing down the internet’s rabbit holes, into the gloss of a digitally manipulated life. Where once the terror of a shadowy technological power taking over our lives was the villain in these stories, now the horrible evil is mostly just ourselves.

Last year, a pair of films circled two sides of the same cloud-fueled anxiety—Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper and Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West, which showed the haunting effects of a ghost in the machine, where social media lifestyle promotion and the unknowability of online communication undermine our ability to be human. In Assayas’s movie, the effect is phantasmagoric, as a young woman (Kristen Stewart) is haunted by the death of a loved one, who appears in ghostly form both in her phone and in the corporeal world. In Ingrid Goes West, a young woman (Aubrey Plaza) with an unsettling stalking habit—who in any other era would be dismissed as a Single White Female–esque loon—is presented instead as the sad product of an Instagram-dazed society. She’s sympathetic; a hero, even.

Just last week, Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane depicted a woman pushed to the brink of madness, into an asylum, desperate for just a few moments on her cellphone, to return to the tranquility of her lonely life of dating-app sadness and banal texting. 2016’s Nerve turned social media stunting into a life-and-death game show. This summer’s forthcoming Eighth Grade spotlights a socially awkward teenage girl’s dual life as an aspirant motivational YouTube star and Instagram tourist. The sequel to 2015’s slick, unnerving horror movie Unfriended will travel to the Dark Web, where the most ghoulish, Bitcoin-backed corners of the internet spring to life, and, eventually, bring death. Last year’s ill-conceived The Circle was at least premonitory in its vision of a future tracked and targeted by a cheery, globe-conquering technology company and all of its extensions into our daily lives. The Emoji Movie was, literally, shit. But it was also a corporately synergized movie spun directly from your phone. This fall, Disney’s Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2 will be a kid’s play on Ready Player One, in which the titular character escapes a video game and heads straight into the depths of internet culture writ large. Maybe he’ll come out the other side as a blogger.

All of these movies are products of a world that isn’t necessarily afraid of the internet—just obsessed with it. On the one hand, it’s impossible to make a movie set in 2018 that doesn’t grapple with the manner in which cellphones, social media, streaming platforms, and the jetstream of information are funnelled into people’s eyes and ears all day long. (Watch a pre-1990s horror movie and think how quickly it’d fall apart with the aid of a cellphone.) It’s one more keystroke in the rewritten code of modern movies—they’re still an echo of daily life, only one that is lived in isolation. The big screen filters down to the second screen, which eventually subsumes it. And now, when these movies reach their audience, it’s often by way of a phone, or on the back of an airplane seat, or in bed with a laptop melting the thighs and minds of its viewers.

“You know, desperately seeking escape is not nostalgia,” Spielberg told the L.A. Times while discussing Ready Player One. “It’s something we’re all familiar with. Escapism is something, especially today, that people are craving more than ever before just to get out of the desperately depressing news cycle. There have been desperately depressing news cycles in every decade from time to time, but it’s pretty profound now. And so I thought, ‘This is the right time for this.’”

The same could be said for Blackhat or The Social Network or Catfish or You’ve Got Mail. Movies about the consequences of the internet aren’t new, exactly. They’re just everywhere. And it has zapped movies of an inherent power—the ability to transport, to reinvent or recontextualize what’s possible in the world. Ready Player One is a fantasy that could be real. At this rate, it will be. In 23 years’ time, it too may be hailed as a prescient but junky piece of entertainment. But that won’t fix what’s happening to movies themselves. The internet and the possibility of VR has flattened life, ironed the kinks out of experience, shown the mind-altering possibilities of the world with a swipe and also diminished that power by making it commonplace and clickable. Now, it’s as easy as ordering a pizza.