Ready Player One and the Escapist Dystopia

I’ve never even read the book. I know people who have, they liked it, and it’s apparently a ton of fun. I’ve seen some people put it down online as being a badly written list of ’80s stuff its writer Ernest Cline likes, catering just to nerds in a self-esteem short supply who need the obscure-knowledge parts of their ego’s stroked. Perhaps, but I know of at least one person who isn’t that trivia-ish and who thought it was a thrilling book, so I guess it’s pretty well written too. I’m not gonna discuss the book though, I’m gonna discuss the movie.

From frame one of the first teaser trailer, blaring Rush’s Tom Sawyer (apparently and unsurprisingly one of the writer’s fav songs) in the background and throwing vehicles from other movies into our eyeballs at 24fps, it was clear: Warner Brothers spared no expense (Hey! I made a reference!) and pulled out all the stops on their licensing budget. Even though they couldn’t get parties like Disney to join up (Han Solo’s belt is all we get to see of the world’s most important pop-culture franchise) there’s still more geekery crammed into Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One than there’s probably ever been in a movie. Every frame is like a full season of Stranger Things. And I’ll be honest. I love that stuff. I love the obvious in yo’ face references like the The Shining sequence (showing that in the right hands, a parody movie is actually not a bad idea at all) and the exo-armour from Mobile Suit Gundam showing up to serve some ass kickery in the final battle, I love the hard to find stuff like the Excalibur poster on Halliday’s bedroom wall and the mention of Gary Gygax’ name as a game location, I love the homages like using the same types of guns as they use in Inception when they do the simulation-within-a-simulation sequence. But I don’t really go to the movies to see bits and pieces of other movies. That’s what Youtube is for. (I guess? What is Youtube for actually?) I don’t watch Stranger Things because there’s a synthesizer in the soundtrack and they dress up as Ghostbusters. I go to the movies to see a story that I like. That entertains me, makes me think, and moves me emotionally. Preferably as many of those three as possible within a single project. Stranger Things has got the first and third one down, and Ready Player One (thank God, ’cause I’ve been defending it on twitter before it came out) isn’t just entertaining. It’s a legitimate entry into the pantheon of Spielberg’s sci-fi masterpieces.

The Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack and the omnipresence of Stranger Things further enforced what we all already realised. We’re living in an age of nostalgia. There’s a third fucking Expendables. Generation Y, the Millennials, or whatever we’re supposed to be called, as well as the final bunch of those Gen X kids, grew up behind a cartoon spewing TV set, and were the first to grow up with the internet. Before grown-ups could figure out what this internet was to be used for, we spent the ’90s and early Naughties filling her up with fan sites, top lists, and came together on forums to discuss whether or not GhΓ’n-buri-GhΓ’n would show up in Return of the King. He didn’t. Now we’re old enough to be a major force in what drives the world’s economy, and what do we buy? Backpacks shaped like PlayStation 1’s, Yoda shaped Christmas tree ornaments (real glass), and a Raspberry Pi that lets us give getting through that Terminator 2 video game another shot. Nostalgia’s become an industry that can rival any other, and with the dominance of Kevin Feige’s crew at the box office it seems clear that yes, the nerds have won.

So what have we won? As the Babyboomers use their dotage to sell the last of the Earth’s natural resources to whoever drills up the most oil, we find ourselves in rental houses, searching for jobs, and not really making a dent in the world even when we try to. (Don’t @ me with exceptions, I’m painting with a broad-ass brush here. OF COURSE there are exceptions.) Growing up has let us down big-time, and now we’re barely thirty and already filled with more nostalgia than most of the grey-haired population of the world. We’re not happy here and we want to leave. ENTER STAGE LEFT: POP CULTURE.

Escapism is turning into the doom of our age. As we’re unequipped to deal with actual problems, we hide away in safe places like Nakatomi Plaza, the world of Warcraft and the Forest of Fangorn, and the longer we stay there, the longer we’re happy, but the less equipped we become to succeed in anything when we finally go back outside and breathe in the smog of a world in decline. Even socio-political matters have become the stuff pop-culture is made of: Jon Stewart is as much a portrait to be printed on a hoodie as Robocop is. Click here to see Trudeau’s Star Wars socks. We’re living in a world where Trump is compared to Jabba, not the other way around. Fantasy is the measure by which we value reality. But that’s a bar reality will never reach. I’m a filmmaker by profession, which basically means I’ve managed to make a living out of not making a real living. Escapism is where all my talents lie. Boy am I a millennial. And boy are there a lot of would be artists in my generation. If the Pixar protagonist can do it, so can we, right? ‘Anyone can cook’, right? And would I be happy making popculture for the popcorn popping screenagers of the world for the rest of my life? Damn straight I would. Halliday, the big friendly giant of the world of Ready Player One (Remember Ready Player One? It’s a movie. This article is about it), is clearly one of my contemporaries. Unfit for real life, he hid away in comic books and walkthrough vids, and found a following in the one place where he never had to lead.

Ready Player One is a fun ride, sure, maybe the fun ride, but there’s a bleak goddamn dystopian vision at the core of it. Nostalgia is pure love, but it’s also somewhat of a cultural rot, an Alzheimer’s of humanity, where it’s becoming harder and harder to keep up with whatever the world’s turning into now, and we keep dredging up something we goddamn loved in ’86. (It’s Aliens. I was talking about Aliens. God, I love that movie.) If we follow whatever’s happening with the Oculus Rift and stuff like that to their eventual outcome I’m sure we’ll end up with Oasis-ish technology in the future, but Ready Player One doesn’t even have to play the ‘look at what could become’ card. Ready Player One is now. Netflix is the Oasis. Marvel vs. DC is the Oasis. Fuckin’ facebook’s the Oasis. But facebook’s also IOI. Google is IOI. There’s Oasisses (what’s the plural of Oasis?) and IOI’s everywhere. And we’re letting it happen ’cause the alternative is worse. We keep chompin’ down on the whopper, cause the effort of being a vegan is just too much of a hassle (it is) and there’s like just too much stuff goin’ on in my life to deal with all of that right now, you guys! So we keep eating and eating, and now we’re just eating because we’re eating. The screen is a drug administered through the retina.

Once we’re addicted, the actual love starts to wane. Was it just a crush? We’re now defending the original Total Recall because, well, because. It’s just the best, it just is, I’m telling you. And the new one is the absolute worst ever and it isn’t even a movie! Childhood raped everything raped. We’re becoming more and more narrow minded. In need of a cigarette. Now. No, I’m not addicted. It’s just that one you can have after dinner, you know, to wash the dirty taste of food off your tongue. That sound’s like an addiction to me. Because what if you have to let go? What if Luke becomes old, makes mistakes and hides on an Island? What if Total Recall wasn’t really all that great? What if you just loved it for its silliness? What of your heroes now? What if women want a piece of the action? Pop has become toxic. You’ve been hiding away from life by investing in the fandom, and now the fandom is falling apart at the seams. Are you watching Blade Runner: The Final Cut because you love it or because you’re supposed to? Because knowing Rutger Hauer’s soliloquy by heart earns you a place in the club house so you won’t have to deal with the fact that if those fucking taxes don’t go up, we’re all going down with them. I bet you weren’t even alive when Blade Runner came out. I sure as hell wasn’t. Have we artificially created nostalgia as a defence mechanism? Have I really been watching all those ’80s movies since I was 7? I doubt my mom let me put on The Thing as a kid now that I think about it. I wonder how many of the Oasis’ top avatars in Ready Player One actually like The Shining. I wonder how many never read the book. Why are they obsessed with the ’80s in the first place? They were born in like 2029. Do they just watch it because Halliday loved it? Is it status, a badge? And don’t you dare dissin’ the Kubrick, man. He’s the best. Did you know he shot Barry Lyndon all with available light? Well he did! Let me tell you how!

On first glance Ready Player One might feel like a big-ass thing of candy floss. Where you ask the guy in the booth for the Extra Large, ’cause the eyes are always hungrier than what the stomach can, well, stomach, and once you’re about a third of the way into it you just want to die. It looks like too much of a good thing. The Oasis looks like fun, the characters look like fun, the action looks like fun. Hey, it’s fucking Chucky! Even the ‘dystopian’ real world is too much fun. They’re still handsome action heroes fighting an evil empire in a resistance. Even the real world is a Spielberg movie. But then that’s the point, isn’t it? The dystopia of Ready Player One isn’t The Stacks, it’s the Oasis that’s the dystopia. Pop culture is the world that’s been pulled over our eyes to blind you from the truth. “What truth?” That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison, for your mind. Pre-order the blu-ray now on Do you want fries with that?

By Thijs Meuwese, as published on SnorFilm

Author: Thijs

Dutch writer and film director who still believes in robots and thinks that Greedo shot first.