Do you love the 90’s? Do you love the 80’s even more? Are all of your favorite things in life from more than two decades ago? Did the video game crash of 1982 send you into a downward spiral of depression and self-destruction that you still haven’t quite gotten over? Is your entire social identity with every social interaction defined by obscure pop culture references that none of your friends or family understand?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, the I have good news for you. Now there is a film that contains all of your favorite bits of references and nostalgia to the point of being over-bloated and annoying! Presenting Ready Player One, the newest sci-fi-action-video game-nostalgia hole-film from director Steven Spielberg who took on the project because it reminded him of the high point of his career. And now you too can look into a massive crowd of CG characters and feel special when you spot the Battle Toads.
With the condescending intro out of the way, we can move onto to actually discussing the film. Ready Player One is defined by its references and nostalgia. It embraces them, and places them right up front; nearly every single frame of this film has some sort of reference to something. Video games, television, films, it doesn’t matter. If the author of the book went through it as a kid, it was in there, and if Amblin could get the licensing rights for it, it made it into the film too. Even the film’s poster looks like an amalgamation of the posters for Tron, Star Wars and Back to the Future, though only one of those had any presence in the film (thanks for nothing, Disney).
The film itself is pretty standard. It plays things pretty safe, structurally, and doesn’t do anything new or off the wall there. Protagonist goes from being some nobody from nowhere to saving the world. In this version of the hero’s journey, we follow Wade, a.k.a, Parzival, as he saves the virtual world, Oasis, from the clutches of a stuck-up business that would conduct such evil as implementing intrusive monetization systems! (As trivial as it may sound to some, it is actually a pretty big deal rocking the video game world right now) Along the way are all of the usual trials and pitfalls of the hero’s journey for Wade to navigate through, only this time, it mentions games from when some of us were kids!
Thus we come right back to the nostalgia aspect of the film, as all the film has going for it is nostalgia and references. The characters are nothing special, and some of the real-world exchanges come across as a little goofy and stiff. It would be an act of unquestioned genius to have it this way on purpose in an attempt to simulate actual face to face interactions between people who spend all day in a virtual world. The entire appeal of this film lies in the nostalgia. I am going to get nitpicky for a moment. The film is set in 2045, and if folks in the teens are nostalgic for things from 30 years ago, wouldn’t people 30 years in the future be nostalgic for things that are popular now? It doesn’t really matter except that there is almost nothing contemporary in the film which makes everything that is stick out as product placement even more than usual- with Microsoft and Activision begin the worst culprits. Anyway, back to nostalgia.
Using nostalgia as a part of a film or television shows identity isn’t inherently a bad thing as long as it is executed well. Take Stranger Things; it is a series that has 80’s nostalgia at the very core of its being. But instead of wearing that nostalgia on its face and using that as its identity, the Duffer brothers decided to make something new that was both inspire by their favorite childhood things, and is able to sit alongside them in terms of feel and quality.
Another good example is last week’s Pacific Rim: Uprising. As discussed in the review last week, the Pacific Rim films are heavily inspired by giant robot/mech anime from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. It has nods to its inspiration here and there, but it is itself something entire new which never feels the need to throw names around to define itself outside of a single shot of some of its inspiration. Ready Player One creates nothing new out of its nostalgia. Instead it creates a sandbox where the nostalgia and references can be viewed uninhibited. Sure it is a fine little action film, that never gets aggravating beyond the references, but it just hasn’t created anything to care for outside of the things you already did.
If you are caught up in nostalgia in the same way that the film creators are, then this film will be a delightful way to experience many of your favorite things from decades ago- even some things which you may have forgotten about. If you have read this far and have thought, “who cares if there is nostalgia or not, the film looks like fun” then you too will find something to enjoy. But if you are like me, and nostalgia really doesn’t do anything for you, or if you were not born in the 80’s so the abundance of references carry no emotional weight, then this film will leave you feeling unfulfilled.