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Hey, Do You Remember That Thing? (A Ready Player One review – very minor spoilers but not really)

I have a billion things that I should be doing. A podcast to edit. Two more academic conferences to get ready for. A couple of papers to write. I should pack. I should clean my house. So what did I decide to do? I decided to go see Ready Player One at the movies last night, of course. Because clearly you people can’t live without a new review from me. And I’m a man of the people goddammit. Yeah, that’s it! (Oh look… a Delorean!)

So I have a confession. I’ve never actually read Ready Player One. I could have. I bought the book quite some time ago, because I wanted to read it before the movie came out. But I didn’t. Mostly I just didn’t get around to it. And then, as the movie came closer I sort of opted to not read it on purpose. I’m glad I did. It’s rare when I get to see a geeky film adaptation and go in cold. It certainly never happens with superhero anything. It’s actually kind of nice to go in cold and sort of enjoy the movie for what it is… enjoy it without the lenses of fanboy goggles. (Oh wow… it’s the bike from Akira!)

It seems that there’s been something of a mixed reception to the movie. It’s actually exactly what I would expect with a geek film adaptation. Those who are invested in the original material don’t really like changes. I don’t know the changes and so I am not married to them. So, if I view the film as an artifact among itself it’s… fine. Actually, it’s pretty good. Not great, but good. A perfectly serviceable popcorn action movie. Oh…. check it out… it’s the Iron Giant (this one is just convenient… Speilberg already had the CGI model)!

Essentially it’s a grail quest. Hell, the movie essentially TELLS YOU that it’s a grail quest, complete with a protagonist named Percival (well, Parzival… the German spelling). There’s a thing… a McGuffin… Everyone in the movie is after the McGuffin. The good guys need to get it before the bad guys do. You’ve seen this story before. You’ll see it again. The grail quest is more or less by the numbers. The fun of the film is more supposed to be in mixing the base narrative with the massive does of nostalgia porn that pervades it. (Oh hey… that’s Harley Quinn!)

And fuck is there a lot of nostalgia porn. (Oh… look, it’s Minecraft… you know, for the kids!)

But it wasn’t a bad thing. That’s what I was actually worried about. We are living a very nostalgia driven cultural moment right now. Sometimes this is good (Stranger Things). Sometimes it is bad (Baywatch). I was very worried about the bad. What I didn’t want to do was go to a movie that was all about “hey, remember that you like… here’s that thing… *wink* *wink* *nudge* *nudge* *sledgehammer*!” This avoided that. (Oh… is that a Ninja Turtle? Is this getting annoying yet? Because if it is, then well… maybe the movie will annoy you a bit)

That’s not to say the nostalgia porn wasn’t there. The whole concept of the movie is “hey, there’s a virtual world full of nostalgia porn. If you like the nostalgia… then it’s in that world. Go enjoy it!” I’m told that part of the fun of the book is being able to read it and being reminded of all these geeky things that you’ve loved throughout. And from what I’ve seen from some of the more negative fan reviews of the film, one of the things that people DON’T like about it is that this was apparently changed from the book. There is far less of a focus on the nostalgia aspect, except for the times when it is very important. And well… I liked that. One of the big things this film crows about is that Stephen Spielberg was able to do is secure the rights to SOOOO much pop culture (both things that he helped create and otherwise) in order to make the world of the film feel legitimate. Honestly, it didn’t matter. If you have somehow never seen a single movie, played a single video game or heard a single song that the film references… it simply won’t matter. You’ll be able to follow along just fine. And if you have lived on the planet earth at least part time over the last fifty years or so, then in all likelihood you’re going find a reference to something that you remember from “back in the day.” But if you don’t recognize anything… it won’t matter. The storyline and the message of the story is still there. (Oh hey… a Mad Ball… I wasn’t expecting that!)

That said, it isn’t a particularly deep film. I’m not super attached to any single character, beyond the level that the film basically tells me “oh hey… care about this person because…” I wasn’t super invested in the romantic plot – it’s very much a “hey… here’s the girl. She and the protagonist will be falling in love with the protagonist…. because she’s the girl.” The acting isn’t great (its not bad either). The story is very by the numbers. Nothing to write home about. There’s a quest… you know the quest from the trailer… and if you don’t they explain it to you in the first three minutes… and then they go on the quest. The action is pretty but not astounding. There are some ‘splosions… there’s some fighting. The CGI is what it is… pretty, but artificial looking… which is ok, because the premise is that it’s an artificial world. If you like pretty action popcorn movies that toss in a token love story and at least try to have a little something to say between ‘splosions… well, this is one of those! (Oh… and there’s King Kong!)

As I said, one of the fan complaints I’m seeing is that “they changed stuff from the book! How dare they?!?!” And… well, I haven’t read the book…  but if they did… fine, I guess? One of my questions whenever I am watching an adaptation or a reboot is “would this work without having the cache of the IP trademark attached?” And in this case… I guess it would have worked fine. This film could have been made with entirely with fake nostalgia. There’s no reason why the denizens of the virtual world need to allude to actual popular culture memes. They could just as easily have been made up references and the film would have worked just as well as it does. (But then would you be able to say “Oh look, it’s Mecha Godzilla!)

But they weren’t… And that’s maybe sort of the problem… and the point. (Oh… Pac-Man… I mean, obviously Pac-Man… how could you do this without Pac-Man?)

If there is a central theme of the movie, it is probably “hey, we’re too invested in these fictional worlds of culture that have gone by to the extent that we aren’t really making new pop culture” (and this is a complaint that I have made in other reboots… like in my Ghostbusters reboot review). And the theme is correct. But that said, it’s a movie adaptation of a book… that relies wholly on the nostalgia that it is criticizing. So while I agree with the thematic message that the film is trying to land. I also realize that it isn’t really doing a lot to move beyond that problem on a meta-level. Or maybe it is. The film does do a bit of remixing on the pop culture concepts that it is dropping… honestly, this may be one of the things that bothers people when they see it… but for me, it was nice… because it’s probably the most creative aspect of the movie. (Oh…it’s KITT and the A-Team van!)

Or at least sort of. Because maybe one of my problems with the way the pop culture easter eggs work in this is that they are very specific easter eggs. Part of it is what Speilberg could get his hands on (there’s no Disney references, for instance) but the other part is that, given the source material, it’s not just nostalgia, but it’s very specifically GEEK nostalgia. The movie takes a very specific look back at certain aspects of culture that while perhaps are not the most popular, but are cemented in the cultural mindset as “the great things” for the demographic of which the movie serves. (Oh…Huh… Forbidden Planet… probably a bit of a deep cut)

If this is truly a world that is inspired by a devotion to recreating the past then it sort of misses out on things that aren’t very specifically nostalgic to geeky, white, male, GenXers or Millenials. Most of the references are to action films or video games from the 1980s or 1990s. There are a few references to thing from other time periods or demographics… you get a My Little Pony, a Nancy Drew, a Marvin the Martian… but you’re missing out of huge cultural aspects that maybe aren’t important to middle age white men who were teens in 1990. If we’re being nostalgic for the 1980s, and there’s not a single reference to the rise of hip hop culture, the wedding of Luke and Laura, Strawberry Shortcake, Salt-N-Pepa, the shooting of JR, Barbie, the Chicago Bears Super Bowl Shuffle, Trapper Keepers, or Jem and the Holograms… well, you’ve really missed the fuck out capturing the cultural moment outside of one very specific subculture. I think we may be talking about the nature of nostalgia porn on the next episode of my new podcast (Vox Popcast)… so make sure you follow it on the blog or Facebook or Twitter (@voxpopcast) if you aren’t already.

Of course… Oh hey!!! There was a totally awesome cameo of the beat box from Say Anything… and just maybe that makes it all worth it.

★★⅞☆☆+🕹🎞🎮💾💩 (2.875 out of 5 stars… plus a bunch of random shit that maybe you’ll just happen to recognize and will make it better for you)

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