I like DeLoreans
by Thom Yee
Nostalgia is a hell of a thing. Or maybe it isn’t, I don’t even know anymore. Haven’t people gotten pretty sick of nostalgia by now? Aren’t we in the midst of the great nostalgia backlash? Don’t people now despise their once treasured memories after all of this overexposure? Don’t you all hate remembering stuff now? Hasn’t the whole thing gotten to be ONE. SICK. JOKE? Well anyway… here’s everything nostalgic for you… together…!
There’s a promise inherent in revisiting the things you used to love but have, for whatever reason(s), left behind. It’s like putting on your favourite pair of jeans or pulling a warm blanket all the way over your head on a cold and stormy night. Something that’s familiar, something that’s so comforting that it becomes sort of a shield from the terrible world around you.
And I think there’s a promise inherent in seeing all of the things you used to love brought back together, all on one big canvas through a more modern lens: That loving those things once upon a time might be the only thing you still have in common with other people in a world that seems to be doing nothing but get worse and worse.
Or maybe it’s just a bunch of crap. Thrown together for an increasingly desperate audience that doesn’t understand that the concept of discrimination isn’t necessarily a bad thing but merely the recognition of the difference between one thing and another. Like a something deep and something shallow.
The concept of a crossover always seems cool at first, whether it’s seeing Godzilla fight King Kong, a subtle hint that all TV takes place in the mind of a young autistic boy, or finally seeing all of the superheroes come together to fight the foes no single hero could withstand, but the horrible, terrible, no good, very bad truth about bringing different franchises together into one piece is that, once done, you can never get that magic back. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Nowadays seeing characters and concepts from different blockbuster franchises crossover is commonplace, combining the leading characters from different stories into one big mashup, huge ego against (and then usually, eventually, with) huge ego, is the norm. Hero team-ups are even the dominant format in terms of dollar share with Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, and while that’s cool and works really well for Marvel, most of the time crossovers like that are a contravention of the rules. Each of these individual units of pop culture are made to work within their own universe, but they don’t always fit together. So what happens when you throw everything together into one big pot? That’s what we’re about to find out (Hint: it was okay).
What’s it about?
The future. A dark, desolate world. A world of war. Suffering. Loss. On both sides. Fighting an enemy we cannot defeat. Are we destined down this path? Destined to destroy ourselves like so many species before us? Or can we evolve fast enough to change ourselves? Change our fate? Is the future truly set?
Oh wait, that was the opening to X-Men: Days of Future Past. This one’s about a slightly crappy future where people play video games in a virtual world called the Oasis using avatars and items from pop culture while trying to find the keys to rule the whole thing.
Ready Player One, the first novel from writer Ernest Cline (and no, I didn’t read the book, you should know that about me by now), is a story informed primarily by ‘80s nostalgia, which is why the idea of the movie version of Ready Player One being directed by Steven Spielberg is so… appealing? I don’t feel like that’s quite the right word. Distasteful? No, not that far from appealing. Well, it’s an idea that people seemed to like at any rate. At least at the movies, Steven Spielberg is the man who embodied just about everything we loved not named Back to the Future (he was just a producer on that one), from E.T. to Indiana Jones to… Twilight Zone: The Movie… The Color Purple…? I’ll try to find a better third example later, but anyway, Spielberg’s style defined a generation of creators. That style being fairly direct, fairly obvious, but still reasonably measured, expertly framed, and ultimately affecting storytelling. For better or worse, the name Steven Spielberg is one of the absolute firsts you’re likely to think of when you think of movies, so it’s only fitting that he would be the director of a movie that owes its very existence to the man’s works. Hmm. I don’t know if “fitting” is quite the right word either. I’ll try to find a better word for that later too.
But Ready Player One isn’t just a celebration of ‘80s nostalgia. There’s also, like, an Iron Giant in there. And The Shining. And Minecraft and Alien and a bunch of Atari 2600 stuff. I mean, technically some of that stuff is from the ‘80s, but I feel like The Shining is more of a ‘70s movie, the Alien references are more from the original than 1986’s Aliens, and the Atari 2600 game with the biggest role in the movie was published in 1979. There’s actually not a whole lot of direct ‘80s stuff in Ready Player One, at least not in pure numbers or references or in opposition to the other references being made, it’s more that the movie evokes a sense of the ‘80s in general, a time when fairly far-out and far-from-real-life ideas were making us all forget that most of life’s problems can’t be answered with time machines or proton packs or on one special Saturday in detention. There’s a sensibility to Ready Player One that finds its solutions and comforts purely in the extraordinary, and it’s that sensibility that makes the movie fun. On the other hand… there’s a limit. There has to be, or else none of this will really matter.
Is it any Good?
So y’know, there’s this movie that mines some of our strongest youthful memories to try and tell a new story. And it’s expertly shot, with fine and meticulous recreations of treasured vehicles, settings and iconography. And there are some great scenes in this movie too, and even though some of its characters look more like CGI avatars than real, live people, it’s not that bothersome in the grand scope of things. Sound familiar? It’s called Rogue One? A Star Wars Story?
And that’s where we are when it comes to Ready Player One. A post-references, post-nostalgia, post-recreation world. Everything’s already come back or will soon. So from a certain perspective, maybe the only thing left to do is throw absolutely everything into one. But as with every hook movie (i.e., What’s this movies hook?), there are two sides to consider here in Ready Player One. First, does the hook work? And second, do I actually care about the people behind the hook? And just like with Rogue One, I can appreciate Ready Player One’s hook, and maybe even love it for that sometimes, but mostly I just don’t care about what’s happening. But more on that last bit later. A lot more.
If you’ve seen any of the marketing materials for Ready Player One and thought to yourself “Cool!”, then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with the movie. It looks good, it moves through its story confidently, and all of its references work well even when mixed together. You’ll see stuff from King Kong, Terminator 2, The Last Action Hero, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Overwatch, Beetlejuice, Say Anything, and much, much more, and none of it feels like too much precisely because that’s what this world is about: Everything. And as much as the movie leans heavily on Back to the Future with its main character, Wade Watts, driving around in a DeLorean, the movie manages to be more gratifying than cloying in those moments because you’d have to be some kind of monster to not love that car.
But as a movie? As a narrative? As a series of interconnected scenes, beats, and concepts brought together to tell a cogent and/or compelling story? It’s pretty bad. Almost a failure.
Just as a baseline story there’s very little going on in Ready Player One beyond a basic adventure where the good guy wins with the help of some friends and a cute girl against a ruthless, uncaring bad guy and his henches. We have a quest in the form of keys to be found and a goal to be reached, and a bunch of shallow characters with shallow problems. The pathways that lead to success in Ready Player One come from the idea of “What if I go that way instead of this way?” or “What if I just screwed around instead of doing what the game’s asking me to do?”, and while there’s an obvious appeal to counter-culturalism in those ideas, they’re also the kinds of things gamers do all the time. I don’t even consider myself a gamer anymore, but one of the first things I do when I do play a new game is try to find the limits of the game if I just, for instance, drive to a weird-looking place in Forza Horizon or see if I can kill any of the non-player characters in The Witcher. That’s a natural impulse for anyone who plays games, but in Ready Player One, it’s the path to the keys to the entire kingdom.
The world of Ready Player One is a future where people spend more and more time in the virtual world of the Oasis, the creation of the near-deified tech leader, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), not just because it’s a world where people can be anything, go anywhere, and do whatever they want, but because the real world is awful. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who goes by Parzival in the Oasis, lives in a place called “the stacks”, a community where people literally live in makeshift dwellings akin to motorhomes stacked on top of one another. Whether this is due to overpopulation, the unfair distribution of wealth, some catastrophic event, or the mollification of the populace through distraction is never made explicitly clear, but what is clear is that’s it’s probably all of those things and not that far off from where we’re all already headed. In Wade’s own words:
They called our generation The Missing Millions. Missing not because we went anywhere, there’s nowhere left to go. Nowhere, except The Oasis. It’s the only place that feels like I mean anything. A world where the limits of reality are your own imagination.
But the allegory stops there. Ready Player One isn’t a movie that’s interested in making social commentaries any more than bad people are bad and good people should win, and while there’s a validity to that approach, it leaves you wanting for just a little bit more, especially with how closely the movie brushes right up against some very real and very contemporary issues. There’s widespread inequality all over this world but not a lot of will to do anything about it. There are issues of identity, be they of gender, race, or age, that are now, in our age of fluid identity, more meaningful than ever. There’s a sense that the game is fixed, with overlords at the top doing everything they can to make sure things stay that way. There’s even a subplot with Wade’s horrible home life. And the movie does nothing with those things. Nothing. N. O. T. H. I. N. G. Again, that’s okay, it’s okay that this movie isn’t about those things, but the way the movie acknowledges these issues and then does nothing with them is almost shameful given everything that’s going on right now.
So should I see it?
It’s fun. But that’s it. That’s it!
If Ready Player One had come out in 2005 or 2010, I think it would be a much bigger deal, something we might look back on as influential or even revolutionary. Like The Matrix. But like The Matrix, nobody thinks that sort of thing is cool anymore. We no longer live in an age where references to our youth are rare or difficult to find or special. We live, instead, in one of the most self-indulgent times in history with a breadth and depth of nostalgia products unlike any we’ve ever seen before. There have already been five Transformers movies, all just awful but somehow self-perpetuating. Roseanne just came back to TV, and that show (and those people) are terrible! Pokemon never even had the chance to go away!
In the same way that watching well-done shorts on YouTube or gulping down a frosty, sugary drink is momentarily everywhere you want to be, you can see Ready Player One and get something out of it. But there’s nothing below the surface even though it feels like the movie is well aware that there should have been. What’s onscreen in Ready Player One is almost entirely nonsense, so it’s very hard to invest in what’s happening virtually and virtually impossible to invest in what’s happening literally. I guess, in a way, that’s what people feel like when they’re watching superhero movies, but most superhero movies at least try to set up rules and boundaries and central dilemmas that have real-world implications. At least superhero movies are an appeal to doing the right thing. Ready Player One is almost pointedly pointless.
Thom’s Ready Player One final score
On the Edge
- Why don’t people close their blinds in the Ready Player One universe? Or can people in the stacks not afford window coverings?
- Double visor action for lead actor Tye Sheridan after this and his role as Cyclops in X-Men:
- Of course anyone can be anyone in the Oasis and the first person Wade falls in love with happens to be a manic pixie dream girl in and out of the game.
- Damn it, Parzival, close the damn DeLorean doors! If you’re going to drive around with gull wing doors open all the time, you may as well have been driving Matt Trakker’s Camaro!