'Ready Player One' Is An Orgy Of Nostalgia In All The Wrong Ways

Image: Warner Bros

The early reactions to Ready Player One after its screening at SXSW were mostly positive, but don't count ours among them. It isn't so much a movie about loving old video games and other cultural artifacts. It's about loving to love those things, which makes Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of the bestselling novel feel hollow despite - or maybe because of - the relentless pop culture references it throws at you.

People applauded logos at the screening of Ready Player One I saw last night. Warner Bros. logo? Applause. Amblin logo? Huge applause. This movie is ready-made for people who want to clap at anything and everything they see. Based on Ernest Cline's 2011 novel of the same name, the movie focuses on Wade Watts, a hapless orphan who spends most of his waking hours in a global VR simulation called the Oasis. It's supposed to be a cosmic amalgam of every video game, genre movie, and geek artifact ever made, where players compete to earn money to keep playing to earn more money.

Like nearly everyone else on Earth, Wade - who calls himself Parzival in the Oasis - plays to find three keys left by the mass simulation's creator James Halliday. The person who finds them will gain control of the Oasis, making them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Parzival winds up adventuring with buddies and rivals-turned-friends to try and beat the game before the legions of the evil IOI corporation can do so.

Zak Penn's script does a better job paying homage to video game culture than Cline's book did. It name drops ad-blocking and Twitch live streams, and it features a broader and more up-to-date swath of characters from recent games. The big problem with Ready Player One being a nostalgia bomb is that it largely elides the complexities of the actual relationships fans have with the things they love. We love the video games, cartoons, and comics of our youth because they had hidden depths, layers that we either added or discovered in engaging with them. Ready Player One's hit parade of characters, callbacks, and cheat codes has nothing to say about the icons it summons up from the collective geek subconscious. Most cameos and references happen too fast for them to land well or mean anything.

The moments where certain games and movies do get extended spotlights all feel like instances of perverse strip-mining. Parzival and his crew get plopped into sequences from a famous horror movie, which gets reduced to simply being a backdrop and a platform for jokes. The act of creation gets lofty lip service, but the film deliver characters who rattle off far more rote memorizations than artistic appreciations.

Ready Player One doesn't show any insight as to why we like comics, video games, TV shows, or movies. It just takes as a given that we do, an assumption that makes the movie feel hollow. Parzival's motley crew itself feels like a recreation of the Goonies kids playing through a video game environment. Cline called on Spielberg's famous kid-centric action comedy in his book, but nothing interesting gets done with this instance of recursion. It just sits there, waiting for its pat on the head, like a pet used to getting taken out for walkies every day.

Worse, Ready Player One reinforces hoary old stereotypes about nerds and fandom cultures, including the centering of white males whose love of stuff coincides with being socially maladroit. Their arrested development comes with a hyperspecific knowledge that gets messaged as the key to fulfillment. The evil corporation has a corps of nerds, too, giving Ready Player One an odd feedback loop that makes it a corporate illusion that rails against corporate illusion. Spielberg's skill with spectacle is on display here, twinkling through a constant flurry of envelope-pushing CGI sequences. However, there are too many bloodless moments that drag on and the most intriguing ideaspaces — like how much society would actually change when everyone escapes into VR — are left under-explored. Everything that happens in the film's dilapidated near-future feels terrible, and not only in the way it's supposed to. With the exception of Lena Waithe, who plays Aech, the principal cast all turn in performances that feel perfunctory at best.

Ready Player One exists as the equivalent of a video game that uses microtransactions. Players have an insidious choice in games built on the controversial model: They can either spend hours playing to get the gear and rank they covet, or pay real-world money to acquire those things much faster. The institutional power of Warner Bros. essentially lets the studio able to use pay-to-win mechanics on the audience, unlocking laughter or emotional response by sheer volume of its resources. It's the ne plus ultra of franchise mash-up-a-go-go mega-spectacle. And the overload makes missing bits of nerd iconography — no Marvel superheroes in here, kids! — all the more conspicuous. There's a glimpse of a cult 1980s show, a snatch of old-school movie soundtrack, all speeding by in a way designed to make you want to buy the home video release and painstakingly annotate it frame by frame, but that's about it.

An image from Ready Player One. Image: Warner Bros.

Like a rude orgy participant, Ready Player One insistently rubs itself on you in ways that it thinks will turn you on, whispering "talk nerdy to me" into your ear constantly, and with increasing insistence. Depending on your kink, the frottage will work at times, but the movie drags when the nostalgia stops for one of its obligatory refractory periods. And, just like a real orgy, Ready Player One is inevitably going send someone home unsatisfied and depressed.


Comments

    The book was horrible. It was a cheesy, predictable, a stereotypical nerds nostalgia porn driven power fantasy. Calling it 80's pop culture diarrhea would be a compliment.

    Honestly, it is by far one of the worst books i've ever read. Why would we expect the movie to be any different?

    Last edited 13/03/18 12:52 pm

      I wouldn't say horrible, but it was pretty bad.
      I am right in it's demographic, but it felt like a man about my age screaming:
      "No honestly the late 70s and early 80s were awesome. They really were, please belieeeeeeeve me!!"

      It had some cool moments, and some of the nostalgia was fun, but it really did feel like someone that grew up and was just so sad that the world had changed and left them behind, and was desperately trying to crawl back into their youth, when the world made sense to them.

        Yeah, same here. I loved all the references back to the video games and movies etc of my childhood. But after I finished it, I had to admit that those references were pretty much all it had to offer.

      Thank god! I finally found another human that thought the book was trash.
      The amount of people who loved the book and recommended it to me was INSANE.

      It's a lazily written book with a high gloss coat of nostalgia. Cline used nostalgia as an excuse to describe nothing.

      I can forgive the nostalgia if the book was well written, but the laziest was when ever the main character is met with any sort of challenge... luckily he is king of the world at whatever he needs to do! I need to play guitar? Lucky I can shred! I need to play game X? Luckily me and 2-dimensional character played heaps of game X. How about foreshadowing? Like show us in an earlier chapter that he can play guitar, or show ushim playing game X after class with 2D bro and don't just write: "Oh yeah, I can do that."

      Remember in Back to the Future when Marty was late for school coz he was playing guitar at Doc's house? Then the school wouldn't let him play guitar at their dance in 1985? And then at the end of the film when they need someone to play guitar at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance? Well the audience already knows Marty can play because we've been shown he can play, and there's tension because he wasn't good enough for 1985. They didn't just go "Oh by the way, I can totally shred!"

      When a character can meet any obstacle and just go "Oh I can do that" there is no tension.

      This book was utter tripe and it's embarrassing that so many people love it.
      0/10 - would not read again, won't even watch the movie.

      It's complete garbage. Reads like a young adult novel but written for 30-somethings. I forced myself to read about half before I had to stop, thinking that all the people constantly talking about how great it is had to have been seeing something I wasn't, but no, it's just trash.

    I did wonder if this movie would turn out to be less of a story and more of a game of 'spot that thing you already know and like'

    including the centering of white males whose love of stuff coincides with being socially maladroit.

    I didn't realise this was a gender/race stereotype.

      Apparently, there's a diversity quota that wasn't met.

      Nerdy white dude that struggles socially is not a meme? Ok.

    There were flaws in the book to be sure, and the movie won’t help matters. But focusing on the outside world when the story focuses on the virtual one seems like you’re looking for a reason to hate on this movie. As for the references, it sucks that it’s been updated, but at the same time a movie revolving around 1980s references wouldn’t work too well with the target 25 years and younger market. Oh, and it doesn’t surprise me why Lena is the “standout” as Arch if anyone reads the book.

    Hahahaha speaking from experience on the orgy front?
    P.S nice write up.

    Not surprised. The trailers looked awful and gave the impression that the film is severely lacking in substance.

      A love of nostalgia is literally depression mixing with neurological decay.

          However, nostalgia can be so easily provoked that it is possible to become addicted to the pleasure of nostalgia, just as a person can become addicted to any activity that stimulates the reward centers of the brain. Nostalgia can be used excessively as a crutch and the positive feelings of nostalgia may serve as a substitute for living in the present-day if current, real life troubles take more effort than a person can tolerate.

            Same with cheese, so not sure of the point here.

    So is it the movie being a bad adaptation, or being faithful to the book? Are the problems described a problem of the movie only, or did it exist in the books and therefore the movie by being faithful transcribed the same faults over?

      Sounds like it is relatively faithful to the book, given the book is a non stop run on of referencing stuff from the 80's.

        Yeah, I feel like the problems were in the book as well. With a movie having about 1/10th the time to cover the same ground, it would likely come across even more thinly than the book did.
        I didn't hate the book, it was fun at times, but it was mostly a nostalgia tick-box.

      From how this article reads, it’s faithful but updated when it comes to references. But it wouldn’t matter when the references were set in, the reviewer just seems to hate nerd culture just as much as anything to do with white males.

    Not surprised. Spielberg has been off the boil for years now. It always felt like it would ring hollow to me.

    Wow there's such hate for this book lol. I had a great time reading it, only took a day *shrugs*

      It’s a simple book, buts it’s well written and basically a love letter to 1980s nerd culture. I don’t see why people hate it so much.

        Honestly I think it's that ppl who write are just pissed they didn't think of it first ! It's just accessible, my brother never reads yet he bought it and told me about it, then I borrowed it and it's still sitting on my shelf haha

          I got in a Loot Crate years ago, just as the movie was announced to go into production. I had everyone tell me how good it was, but I left it on the shelf till the trailers started in the cinema. Then I read it in 7 days (on the way home from work at 40 minutes at a time) just to see what the story was. Loved it from there.

            Serious? I've been feeling very nostalgic lately, probably a little depressed the last couple years and now you're saying my bring is decaying too? This all sounds about right ????

    Yeah I really enjoyed the book and i'm looking forward to seeing the movie. I'll happily make up my own mind about it rather than adopt the post-AICN (there's a meme for you) "let's pile shit on everything before we've seen it" trope.

      Cant see how it will be worse than all the other blockbuster movie dross we r bombarded with

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now