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Thursday, 29 March 2018

Review: Ready Player One

Often the most interesting thing about a movie is the thing they don't want you paying attention to. When you're setting up an extreme scenario that you want to play around with, usually the easy thing to do is to set up an environment where that scenario seems reasonable; there's a reason why crime rules the streets in every Death Wish movie. So to have everyone constantly logged into a virtual world in Ready Player One, the real world has to be a crapsack. But why?

Movies have always struggled to make virtual worlds interesting. Movies themselves are a virtual world we willingly enter; add another layer to that and you run the risk of the audience feeling too far removed from the story. Inception made it work by having the layers of removal be part of the story; The Matrix set the bar impossibly high by making the virtual world the only place where the characters could be fully human. And here? It's important because that's where all the cool stuff is.

The original novel had a little more to it thanks to its creepy obsession with 80s pop culture. Emotionally it made sense: of course people are going to use virtual and augmented reality to escape into their obsessions, and of course people reading a novel in 2011 are going to know about and be nostalgic for 80s pop culture (people in the novel's setting of 2045 not so much, but that's what the scavenger hunt angle is for). Nostalgia is a dead end, but at least the book foregrounded it so much it couldn't help but make that obvious, even as it worshiped a past we can never return to.

Director Steven Spielberg, on the other hand, clearly couldn't give a shit. If he wants to get nostalgic for pop culture that means something to him, he can churn out another Indiana Jones movie. So the novel's focus on 80s pop culture as a way to solve the scavenger hunt for the keys to rule the Oasis instead becomes a much more general "pop culture" angle where the scavenger hunt problems are instead solved by focusing on the life of the Oasis' creator.  The references are much more general: The Iron Giant, which gets a lot of play in the marketing, is a 90s reference (just), while more recent games like Halo and Overwatch also get a look in - and the virtual world of the Oasis becomes a kind of pop culture junkheap without even the bonds of nostalgia to hold it together.

(presumably this is why a bunch of negative reviews have ended with movie quotes, as if to say "this is how to re-use pop culture, old man" - the problem for some reviewers isn't that this film is a celebration of nostalgia, it's that it doesn't celebrate nostalgia enough)

This version of the Oasis isn't even interesting on a "nerd showing you his action figures collection" level: at least those action figures mean something specific to one particular nerd. And with much of the "action" in the Oasis consisting of virtual characters just hanging out (which might have been fun when you were playing World of Warcraft but was as boring as hell to anyone watching you play) the narrative focus of the film drifts just enough to make the outside world seem worth a look. Which is a problem, because in this story the outside world is meant to be the frame, not the picture.

In 2045 everything has to be crap, because otherwise why would everyone spend all their time online? There's not even a hint of the much more likely reason: everything is crap because everyone spends all their time online. There's nothing more out-of-touch than an old man complaining that kids need to get outside and play more, so this is extremely careful not to even hint that cause and effect could work the other way. Our heroes would totally be out there changing the world, if only the world was worth changing.

Ready Player One sets up a virtual world that's a pile of random pop culture references thrown together into a meaningless junk heap, and then says that's the only escape from a real world that's a literal junk heap. The idea of there being anything to life beyond "I gotta get what's mine" has vanished; the biggest struggle is over who gets to run the world's biggest message board, only nobody has anything they want to say.

The real nostalgia here is for a time when nostalgia was possible, a world where things meant something and everything wasn't happening to everyone all the time. It's a film about a civilisation that's given up on both meaning and the future: Spielberg must be a whole lot of fun at parties these days.

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