Thursday, April 05, 2018

'Ready Player One' Is a Feast of Nostalgia and Pop Culture

Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.  Through the decades, not only has he made plenty of “important”, artsy, award-winning films, but – more notably – he’s also been behind (as director and/or producer) many of cinema history’s most groundbreaking, culturally iconic, and era-defining movies (seriously, check out his extensive filmography) that have had much impact on the general public.  His latest film, Ready Player One, is one of such.

Based on the book of the same name by Ernest Cline, the movie is set in the year 2045 in which cities have generally depreciated into overpopulated slums.  As means of escaping their gray, run-down world, people immersed themselves into the OASIS, a virtual reality world wherein they can take the appearances of avatars of their own choosing – whether that be characters from video games, movies, cartoons, anime, comics, or otherwise – and wherein countless environments and activities are available for them to interact, play, work, or learn in (think next-level mash-up of VR gaming, open-world MMORPG, cryptocurrency, e-commerce, social media, and the Internet as a whole).  When the creator of the OASIS (Mark Rylance) dies, he leaves an Easter egg quest in which whoever succeeds first will gain ownership of the OASIS.
The plot centers on Wade Watts a.k.a. Parzival (Tye Sheridan), a teenage orphan who sees the contest as his chance to get a better life.  He teams up with virtual friends Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki), and Sho (Philip Zao) to form “High Five”, as they hope to complete the quest and save the OASIS from being taken over by a nefarious CEO (Ben Mendelsohn) and the army of debt-indentured players under his command.

Ready Player One is a lot of fun.  It’s the kind of movie one would want to watch over and over again.  It’s visually exciting and awe-inspiring due to masterfully directed sequences and stunningly rendered CGI.  But what really gives it tons of re-watch value is the fact that it’s a treasure trove of nostalgia and pop culture references.  It has upped the ante of what Wreck It Ralph, The Lego Movie, and The Lego Batman Movie had.
Anybody who has developed fandom for video games, cartoons, anime, comics, and movies growing up would appreciate Ready Player One, as the OASIS is packed with characters, weapons, vehicles, items, places, and other elements from a wide range of pop culture properties.  It might not have everything – there are certainly no Disney-owned properties in it – but it does have a lot, that it’s impossible for me to list them all (but I’m sure there are several articles and videos out there that have already had them comprehensively cataloged).  Regardless, the point the movie was going for is to feature as many IPs as it can get its hands on.

In addition, the narrative itself appropriately contains tropes, moments, and story beats that are borrowed from famous old-school movies and video game storylines.

People of all ages will certainly enjoy this movie.  But I think it will resonate more to millennials, especially those who have been fond of the pop culture they’ve consumed since their childhood.  It does have some 21st century stuff (which are still part of what millenials have been consuming), but the majority are from 80’s and 90’s pop culture.  Moreover, anybody who has been deeply engrossed on video games – or any pop culture property for that matter – will relate to its themes of escapism and obsessive fandom.
In summary, Ready Player One is one of the geekiest movies of all time, and it’s designed to be rewarding to those who have been invested on huge amounts of varied pop culture properties in their lifetime.  Being a well-versed geek myself, I was at numerous times smiling in glee, tingling all over, or feeling like fist-pumping and shouting like a maniac.

However, let’s consider this: if we remove all the aspects pertaining to nostalgia and pop culture, is Ready Player One still great?  I admit that it does lose its magic, if ever.  It will still be entertaining, I guess, but it won’t truly be like the big deal that it is.  Seeing giant robots fighting are always fun, but it’s supremely more gratifying when it’s a Gundam-Iron Giant-Mechagodzilla brawl.
This shows how powerful the love for pop culture references and nostalgia is.

Without it, the narrative won’t really be deeply engrossing.  In retrospect, the story itself isn’t as cohesive and clever as I wanted it to be.  It has parts that don’t work – especially the romance – and the ending is a bit whimper-y.  I just didn’t mind its flaws because I was being pleased too much by the abundance of pop culture references and nostalgia.

Nevertheless, I love Ready Player One.  Nothing like it – at the same epic scale – has ever been done before.  It may be true that without the “nostalgia and pop culture” factor going for it, it won’t really be special.  But the thing is, it does have that going for it.  That’s the whole point of the movie.  It has set itself to be a feast for our inner child to relish, and it triumphantly delivers.

Miscellaneous musings (w/ some SPOILERS):
  • Ready Player One is the ultimate video game nerd fantasy. The main character manages to win the girl, save the world, be celebrated, and get rich because of his video game obsession.  Every gaming-addicted shut-in wants to have his lifestyle validated like that.
  • Ironically, the lesson the movie tries to end with is that, no matter how the real world sucks, it’s more preferable to spend time in it.  Oh, really?  We just saw the hero find fame, fortune, and love by investing his life into a virtual world.  Lol. 
  • Another video game fantasy being realized in it: the girl avatar he falls in love in-game turns out being, not only a real-life girl, but an attractive one, when it’s more likely that “she” is actually a fat, 30-year-old man in real life (a sentiment that another character pointed out).
  • Ready Player One’s biggest in-game BS is that there are mega-bombs that can wipe out all players existing in the OASIS – a place where virtual death means losing everything.  Pretty stupid.  Why would creators want to have a device like that in their MMORPG?
  • It’s strange that in a movie packed with pop culture references, the one I had fun the most was seeing Chucky murdering everyone.
  • If it wanted to accurately portray the Iron Giant, it should have had him wielding tons of weapons and being able to reconstruct himself.
  • The Ready Player One homage posters (which recreated the posters of The Matrix, The Goonies, Lost Boys, The Iron Giant, Rambo, Risky Business, Back to the Future, Blade Runner, Bullitt, The Breakfast Club, and Beetlejuice) are lit!
  • There must be a Ready Player Two, right?

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