Ready Player One Has A Major Problem Hiding In Plain Sight

Ready Player One is set to hit theatres soon, a film that's gotten a mixed reception so far (you can read our review here). The virtual world of pure imagination that director Steven Spielberg has created differs from Ernest Cline's original novel, but one of those changes has created, or rather enhanced, a major problem - if everyone in the story is totally obsessed with pop culture, why don't we see any of it made after 2018?

A poster for Ready Player One that references 1999's sci-fi flick The Matrix.Image: Warner Bros.

The Ready Player One novel is all about a virtual world where nostalgia reigns supreme. A reclusive billionaire hid the key to his fortune at the end of a maze of 1980s pop culture puzzles, leading a huge portion of the planet to become obsessed with the decade, just as he was. From the book:

The only thing Anorak's Almanac seemed to indicate was that a familiarity with [James] Halliday's various obsessions would be essential to finding the egg. This led to a global fascination with 1980s pop culture. Fifty years after the decade had ended, the movies, music, games, and fashions of the 1980s were all the rage one again. By 2041, spiked hair and acid-washed jeans were back in style, and covers of hit '80s pop songs by contemporary bands dominated the music charts.

The movie changes things up a bit. In addition to some of the typical '80s trappings, such as Back to the Future's DeLorean, you have a ton of modern references leading all the way through to, well, now. For example, we've seen an Injustice: Gods Among Us version of Harley Quinn, Overwatch's Tracer, and a whole army of Halo's Master Chiefs, among others. According to co-writer Zac Penn, they chose to forego the "James Halliday's obsessions run the world" angle for the film and instead made the OASIS a place where everybody indulges in what they think is cool.

"The whole nature of the OASIS is people build their own things in there. So I think that it was pretty easy for us to say 'Let's keep the '80s references. Let's make sure that the contest is true to the contest, but the rest of the world should be... everything,'" Penn said.

There are exceptions to this rule, though. For example, director Steven Spielberg said they chose not to include modern Star Wars references because of the '80s nostalgia factor (though it's worth noting he's said a few contradictory things about the Star Wars situation already). In any case, the new Ready Player One is a mix of old and new - prioritising films, shows and games under the Warner Bros. umbrella, of course - which might make the game of "Spot the nerdy thing you like!" a little more fun, but the movie has written itself into a corner.

On-screen, Ready Player One exists in a world where pop culture completely ended in 2018. There are no movies, shows, comics, or other forms of entertainment seen in the world of Ready Player One, which takes place about 30 years after our own, that were created after this year. None of the avatars the characters use, none of the countless cameos, not even a mention of any pop culture less than three decades old.

Penn told us they considered adding invented future pop culture creations to the movie's universe, but ultimately decided against it. "I did at one point have a bunch of jokes about Matrix Kids which was, like, a fake TV show. I think I even had a joke about like Titanic 4 which everyone was like 'Oh, that's the best Titanic movie,' but it was too jokey," he said.

Penn gave two conflicting explanations for the omissions. "Theoretically, they're in there," was one of them, indicating pop culture did not die in 2018, just that none of it shows up onscreen. Perhaps that means there are whole Matrix Kids worlds in the OASIS, but the movie's protagonists are too cool to even mention them, let alone hang out in them. However, this is never addressed in the movie. Expecting the audience to fill in that big of a blank, without even telling them that's what they're supposed to be doing, feels more like an excuse than foresight.

The next explanation was more plausible, at least in terms of the world of the film and what viewers see (or don't see) onscreen. Penn suggested that no new shows/movies/and so on were never added into the OASIS at all because they never actually got made. Penn explained:

There's an undercurrent in the novel - and there is a scene like this where they talk about how the OASIS kind of ended up stopping pop culture in its tracks a little bit. That basically people stopped creating a lot of new stuff because they're spending so much time recycling it in the OASIS, which is ironic given what the movie's about. So I think it's appropriate in some ways that there's not, you know, all the great shows from the 2030s which would have just been really distracting.

Given the movie's premise, this makes a lot more sense - but if nothing new exists because fans have totally stopped creating, then you're selling short what fandom actually is. Even with the endless reboots and sequels we're getting nowadays, there's typically something new in all of them. New characters, different interpretations of the story, and (hopefully) better representation. The fact that the movie features the modern, Paramount version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is proof that OASIS users still value change in their favourite franchises, and would conceivably continue to value it, even after March 2018.

Ready Player One could have avoided this issue by making up even just a few future movies or TV shows for the OASIS, even stupid ones like Matrix Kids. It also could have gone the way of the book and announced the entire world had become obsessed with the '80s and absolutely nothing else, even though that still makes the supposedly boundless virtual world of the story feel incredibly limited. But at least that way, we wouldn't be forced to make a game of object permanence out of thin air, or live in a virtual world where nothing of value was created after March 2018.

This might be easily ignorable for those just wanting to see a hit parade of nerd culture from the last 30 years, but Ready Player One could have been so much more. All it needed to do was think ahead.


    The more io9 coverage I see for Ready Player One, the more I feel like someone on the editorial team has persona issue with it. I feel like they don't want to admit they were wrong with how doubtful they were with all of their preview write-ups. Even in articles like this, which aren't about the quality of the story, there's still lines like this.

    a film that's gotten a mixed reception so far

    It's currently sitting at 81% on Rotten Tomatoes, putting aside my issues with RT, that's still a solid positive in my book.

    There are some very real and very valid issues to have with the source material, but it's time to stop denying that the majority of people are having a great time with this film.

      Wouldnt be the first time, wont be the last time from io9.

      That being said, everything after that really jarring opening is really interesting in this article. Whether it's intentional or not (after reading Ernest Cline's follow up, I'm thinking it's the latter), the superficiality of the 80s nostalgia in Ready Player One actually ends up being one of my favourite themes of the book.

      All of the gunters are only obsessively consuming one person's taste, it's not a true nostalgia for the 80s. If Halliday didn't mention the product, it doesn't get mentioned, remembered or loved, regardless of how good it was. Also, because the only reason people obsess over it is because it could potentially make them rich. There's no true love for the product, only a sense of trying to mine information out of it. It shows on how elitist the characters act over being able to remember useless facts like original airing dates. There's never a sense of community, only competition, which is the most toxic type of fandom (essentially hipsterism).

      It does make sense that when you follow a subset of people that consider themselves "gunters", they would only be referencing what's described in the Almanac as a show of status to other gunters, to use anything else would imply that you weren't as committed to the cause as the other obsessives. It's false equivalence, but something we see in fandom more and more (just look at reddit or tumblr).

      I think its more aboit how people see the Director. Spielberg is a master of cinema and this is.... not a masterpiece to write 10000 word essays on... or is it. Maybe grasping too much to say Spielberg this is trash we want another Schidlers List.

      I mean, the FB caption was: "Besides the fact that it's pretty terrible, obviously."

      That's not even subtly hating it.

        The worst part is that it detracts from the quality of the writing. Having lines like that in Facebook captions/opening/closing paragraph means that what readers focus on. Beth Elderkin wrote an interesting article that cites interviews people that worked on the film, it's a great topic of conversation that really applies to any film that's set in the future (that was a big part of the reason I wrote another reply addressing what the article is actually about), but digs like this regress so much of the conversation to either complaining about or agreeing with the tone of the article. The US site's conversation is the same.

    It'$ glaringly obviou$ why there i$ no reference to anything after 2018. No point wa$ting time creating new content for context, when other creators IP can get people into cinemas regardless.

      Think you need to fix your keyboard there, mate.

      Anyway pop culture died sometime in the early 2000s and we've been inhabiting its shambling corpse ever since.

      oh, I figured it was because Time Warner doesn't have enough/any 80's brands it can promote for itself or would get money for from cross advertising.

    Looking at how 2018 pop culture is so infested with sequels, remakes, reboots and reheated / recycled IPs in general, I actually find it quite plausible that there will be very little, if any, new IP of any note created between now and the distant future in which Ready Player One is set.

      While there seems to be less pop culture entering our experience, to think it will drop to zero is crazy. Sequels/remakes/etc might mean less is hitting that pop culture sweet spot, but there should always be SOMETHING coming through. Its suggesting that Rick and Morty or fidget spinners will be the last pop culture event ever created.

      Because pop culture can come from such a range of sources, its crazy to think they all just dry up post 2018. In the 80's, most of what they're pushing as pop culture in this weren't considered as such, so have that nostalgia tint applied - they aren't pop culture, they're retro. The same should apply to a lot of current stuff in about 30 years. Or roughly when this movie is set.

        I think there's also kind of a question about what constitutes pop culture. Back in the 80s, where the book pulled its references from, there was no internet for this kind of stuff. You had TV, cinema, commercial radio and that was pretty much it. Which meant that everyone was watching / listening to mostly the same stuff, because there just wasn't that much choice. Certainly not much that was easily available. Which means that the pop culture touchstones back then are almost universal among people who grew up then.

        These days, the internet has democratised content - instead of this one giant, monolithic kind of "pop culture", there are a thousand little niches, all of which are catered to and equally easy to access. So 20 years from now, I think it'll be harder to find those kinds of universal pop culture references from now that will mean as much to as many people.

          On the other hand, it also opens up other cultures for references to come from. Gangnam Style for example wouldn't have been the hit it was if it wasn't for that opening up thanks to the internet.

          Pop culture references simply mean what is entertaining us right now. The Simpsons were pop culture once, but not so much today. Ditto WoW. Pogs were, while MASH wasn't. Even in an era where we're more connected than ever before, we still have pop culture references appearing weekly. Again, just look at fidget spinners or Rick and Morty.

          It could be a weird video clip, or some silly app (eg Pokémon Go) that technology turns into a pop culture reference, but they will still appear. I still come back to RPO though and think that most of what they're calling pop culture here are just retro, which is a little different. I find it hard to think of Mad Max as pop culture for example.

    This is a only a glaring hole if you are looking for glaring holes.

    This is a hell of a stretch and feels like nitpicking.

    Who'd have thought? A nerdy website obsessed with picking something apart.

    That's such a minor gripe, I wish I never gave you the click.

    Why do you (the reviewer) assume that any of Ready Player One is true? Or the correct and only version of the story? You really should know by now that stories are whatever we think they are, and none of them are ever really what happened. So, you know, just relax and enjoy the explosions.

    Why is there no music or fashion in from after the 50s in the Fallout universe? Rule of cool.

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