With the advent of the modern superhero movie and pop culture forces like the Big Bang Theory, “nerd culture” has never been more prominent in pop culture proper. Marvel and DC movies are regularly the largest grossing movies of the year and major topics of conversations when talking about what we watch and consume, and with the current hunger for all things nostalgic, this all dovetails into the movie, Ready Player One.
Directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the novel by Ernest Cline, who also has a screenwriting credit, Ready Player One is the well-worn story of a young man trying to protect what he loves. In this case, what he loves is to escape into the world of the OASIS, a sort of VR theme park with anything you can imagine at your fingertips. It is here where Parzival, née Wade Watts, flees the drudgery of his life and becomes…a generic anime boy.
If I am honest, the story for this movie is not worth outlining here. It’s a familiar hero’s tale. The boy, with help from others, fights some evil corporation. It’s the plot of many a story. The things that are worth outlining for me is about what this movie represents at this time in our culture.
Anyone who talks to me for a certain amount of time will hear my diatribe about the current obsession over nostalgia and how we are a culture that is currently eating itself. I don’t think nostalgia in and of itself is a bad thing, but current entertainment relies on it too much. Stranger Things captured a sense of nostalgia for Spielberg’s ability to bring about a sense of wonder and this movie tries to invoke the same feel but is too bogged down with the things it claims to be against.
Early on, we see the corporation vying for control of the OASIS showing their plans for the VR paradise, and that is ad-space, ad-space, ad-space. Nearly all of the OASIS would be covered in ads. And this movie is covered in ads. Now, of course, they’re ‘easter eggs’ in the movie, references to other entertainment properties. But screen time in a Steven Spielberg movie is obviously going to increase brand awareness, so seeing video game properties Minecraft and Overwatch have their own separate worlds in the opening introduction to the OASIS, we see the priorities of the movie. “Look at these things you enjoy now that you can buy right now! They’re enjoying them nearly 20 years in the future! That’s how good they are!” Along with multiple references to glorified 80s and 90s properties, nearly every franchise in “nerd culture” is represented here in some form or fashion as a character, line of dialogue or spaceship in the background of the film. One could argue that the tension between the story and the backroom contracts to get the rights to Mobile Suit Gundam in the film makes it interesting but for me, it just reeks of cynicism.
Another part of nerd culture that the film nearly glorifies is a type of gate-keeping you see with many fans of different property. “You’re not a true fan if you don’t know as much as the thing we both enjoy!” It is relentlessly stupid and antithetical to the spirit of so many of these properties represented. I completely understand obsessing over something to where you know the names of those that worked on it, their previous works, etc. But to use those facts as proof that you are a superior fan…it is the height of nonsense.
I will do my damnedest to rein in my vitriol but I do need to discuss one last personal point of contention and that is how the film treats its female characters. In the story, it is an actual plot point that the creator of the OASIS erases a woman from the entirety of the OASIS sans for one mention of where he talks about the missed opportunity with her. The woman in question ends up being his business partner’s wife. To completely erase this woman from his entire personal recorded history (to which he has digitally built a full museum to) and to lock her avatar in a den of horrors is unspeakably cruel. The female lead, we are meant to understand through her own words, is not the beautiful girl she is in the OASIS, and far less lovable in real life…and then, when we see her…she has a birthmark on her face. That’s it. That’s why she is unlovable. And it is kind when Wade loves her because he knows the real her, from the OASIS. Throughout the rest of the real world sequences, she is shot from the other angle so as not to see the birthmark as well, which…is suspect.
I do give credit to Lena Waithe who did far more to bring her character to life than nearly anyone else, outside of Mark Rylance, giving a character who, as shown by his actions, I would most likely not enjoy but through his performance, gave me a character who I could have true sympathy for.
Spielberg’s ability to craft imaginative and memorable visuals are on display here with the spectacular floating dancefloor and the impressive little flourishes of how the players exit the world, and the way he interprets 2045 America is, to me, a fascinating idea into how our country will evolve but we spend too little time in the real world to get an idea of how it really works, considering the cityscape the show seems like a regular ol’ city. The most sumptuous image of the movie for me is the gang’s entrance into the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. A gorgeous recreation of not just the set but the feel of the movie, it immediately changes the tone. Sadly, the eerie tone is lost too quick and we’re back on the hunt for the key but, for this short period of time, we see Spielberg inhabit the world of a friend and colleague with aplomb.
This, to me, represents why Spielberg took the opportunity to direct this movie. Spielberg is responsible for much of the modern blockbuster and shaping the pop culture landscape with his fantastical adventures filled with memorable characters. So, to take on a film that essentially does its best to make a playground for nostalgic characters, Spielberg is given the chance to wrestle with that which he has created. Here’s the point where I’d say the winner is us, but I don’t think Spielberg particularly likes the audience demographic that will most likely flock to this movie. It’s an odd sort of contempt he has, and is hard to put a finger on, but I felt it throughout. But considering my own contempt here, it’d be a pot calling the kettle black so, kudos Steven. Ya got me.
Ready Player One is a spectacle and an impressive ride, but where it’s going is repugnant and reductive in how we enjoy and interact with art and pop culture.
Aaron Hansen is a 29 year old college student, enjoys playing video games and procrastinating on assignments. You can reach him with any complaints on Twitter or through a whisper on the wind.