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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)

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

  1. avatar
    April 2, 2018 at 12:05 pm

    The boom box was cool but my favorite moment had to have been the Glaive from Krull! I may be slightly geekier than I’m willing to admit

    • avatar
      April 2, 2018 at 12:07 pm

      Yeah. I liked that too. But I was trying to think of something that wasn’t specifically sci-fi/fantasy geeky to end on.

    • avatar
      April 2, 2018 at 12:08 pm

      Kas actually loved a lot of the cameos that I didn’t think he’d get. He was shouting out references like we were in our living room through the whole movie

    • avatar
      April 2, 2018 at 12:09 pm

      Hahah. Did anyone complain?

    • avatar
      April 2, 2018 at 12:10 pm

      No. But I was constantly “shhhhhh”ing him.

    • avatar
      April 2, 2018 at 12:14 pm

      I went in cold too. Like didn’t even know it was a book until a couple weeks ago cold. And with no source background it was a pretty good flick, completely predictable but still pretty good

    • avatar
      April 2, 2018 at 12:21 pm

      I actually slipped near the end of the film during the titular fight and went “Oh, hey. Battletoads!” a little too loudly. That one REALLY caught me off guard.

    • avatar
      April 2, 2018 at 12:26 pm

      I had a few “YESSSSS” moments that may have startled my armrest neighbors

    • avatar
      April 2, 2018 at 12:27 pm

      I ended up seeing a late sunday showing. There were like 10 people in the theater total. It didn’t matter at all.

  2. avatar
    April 2, 2018 at 12:20 pm

    This was a solid review. While I think the lack of “non-white middle-aged male” stuff was more a reflection of James Hallidays limited tastes (and the author’s own limitations of 80s knowledge), the movie never really explicitly states this stuff. So, within the confines of the movie it makes sense, but outside of the movie… yeah, it kind of sucks that they ignore large swaths of stuff.

    As somebody who read the book ages ago, I can only say that… more or less, the movie was an improvement over the book and all the bad story related parts about it. I would’ve loved to see the first quest not be a “race” but more similar to the book where he enters the Gary Gygax “Tomb of Horror” module and faces off against an evil Lich in a match of the ’80s arcade game Joust. But… that doesn’t really impact the story at all, it’s very modular. Instead of Parzival having to act his way through the entire movie of War Games they wander around in The Shining and have wacky fun.

    So, yeah, I don’t really get why “book readers” hated change so much. The characters, motivations, themes, etc. all remain intact. It’s like getting mad about the New 52 version of Batman in comparison to the Post-Crisis version of Batman or whatever. He’s still Batman, some of the events surrounding him may have changed, but he’s ultimately still the same character.

    • avatar
      April 2, 2018 at 12:26 pm

      I didn’t have a good place to say it, but the film does sort of deal with the lack of breadth in a throw away line or two. The Oasis isn’t really “all pop culture” so much as it is Halliday saying “these are a few of my favorite things” which sort of addresses the the exclusions in a minor way (Apparently Halliday doesn’t care about Marvel Comics, Mickey Mouse or General Hospital). But it makes it seem more limited in its approach overall… If the Oasis became as popular as it did, then theoretically it should have had something for everyone… Yes, it hit the big strokes… just like any four quadrant movie does… but there’s a reason that they toss up an Acrimony or a Paul the Apostle to compete against stuff like this and Black Panther…. there needs to be content for the non-geek niches.

    • avatar
      April 2, 2018 at 12:33 pm

      Yeah, rights issues also limited the scope of the movie for sure. I’m always amused when Warner Brothers mentions “Spider-Man” or some Marvel character in passing (like in the CW shows) but can’t go further than that for a multitude of lawyery & business reasons.

      In theory, I mean… it kind of did have something for everyone, but a lot of that was basically in the very beginning, with some of its “worlds” they show. I would assume that Minecraft was not in Halliday’s wheelhouse, although I could be wrong.

      Also, the movie already dates itself in a number of ways by utilizing modern day versions of a lot of characters. Like, I highly doubt that the recent TMNT look is going to be the one people have a Nostalgia for in the year 2047 or whatever or that companies like “Twitch” are going to exist still.

      One of the things I liked a lot about the book was the initial chapters where Wade just used the OASIS to attend a virtual high school/class like all the other kids on the planet. Sorrento vaguely mentions this when he talks about reskinning the schools, but I kind of liked that the book brought up a lot of (at that point in our real world time) cutting edge ideas about virtual reality/simulated world spaces.

      The OASIS wasn’t just a giant theme park opium den, but it also had plenty of regular/mundane things in it as well.

    • avatar
      April 2, 2018 at 12:36 pm

      Right. And it’s a careful balancing act. As I said, I actually DIDN’T want it to be easter egg hammery. I like that it it didn’t FORCE me to acknowledge stuff I didn’t know. I’m sure there were easter eggs in there that even I didn’t recognize. And that was fine. But there were enough things that I did that were from very specific niches that it was obvious that some were missing.

  3. avatar
    April 2, 2018 at 12:54 pm

    You kind of touch on it, but any specific thoughts on the criticism of this story and its fairly direct relation to Gamergate which happened after this book came out and toxic nerd culture that has intensified since then?

    • avatar
      April 2, 2018 at 1:03 pm

      Obviously, that isn’t the direction I wanted to go… since I was focusing more on the nostalgia effort (and a lot of that is because I was thinking that I want to go there with the podcast next). But yeah, that’s there. I don’t think it’s as heavy a theme as the “don’t focus too heavy on nostalgia or else you’re living in the past” theme, but obviously the two are connected.

      There’s certainly attention paid to the “you don’t know who these people are in real life so stop focusing on who belongs here and enjoy the game.” And the film specifically calls this out with the issue of gender on a couple of occasions. And yes, because of that there’s sort of parallels with Gamergate… though I don’t think they’re as strong as they could have been if that’s the story that Spielberg wanted to tell. Specifically with Art3mis. She’s a damsel in distress for a good portion of the film, because she is female and the saving the princess is a trope of the fantasy. BUT, she’s not a damsel in distress because she’s female INSIDE of the movie. That is to say, that from a storytelling POV, she gets captured so that the male hero has a goal of rescuing her (though they did a great job of giving her her own arc within that to make her not JUST a princess to e rescued). But it’s not like IOI says “oh, she’s lame and we’ll catch her because she’s a girl).

      And I think the film shies away from dealing with the issue directly in other places where it could have… which is fine… every movie doesn’t have to be about everything. So I think the film does address it… but, at least for me, I don’t think that’s the primary criticism it is trying to make (other than it’s obvious critique of the kinds of “living in the game” nerds that were behind gamergate anyway)

    • avatar
      April 2, 2018 at 1:07 pm

      Something I immediately noticed, is that in the book Wade pulls some “Are you a fake geek girl?” stuff by pop quizing her on her ’80s knowledge. But, in the film they reversed that with Arty giving Wade the business about whether or not he’s a “true” Gunter by quizing him on Halliday.

      That was the only moment that really “stuck out” to me, and was likely done because of things like GamerGate.

    • avatar
      April 2, 2018 at 1:09 pm

      ah… see, yes, since I haven’t read the book (probably will at some point) I was not aware that was missing… but in the film it becomes “a thing that they just do” because Wade does it later to Sorrento.

  4. avatar
    April 2, 2018 at 5:37 pm

    that sounds about like what I expected – there was this page from the book that made the rounds a time or two that was THE LIST OF ESSENTIAL KNOWLEDGE and I swear to god I think the only non white person on there was maybe Kurosawa or Miyazaki. Everything else was just white white white white.

    • avatar
      April 2, 2018 at 5:38 pm

      oh also ALL MEN.

    • avatar
      April 2, 2018 at 5:38 pm

      like “the essential critical music of the 80s from the cars to the cure” and i’m like MOTHERFUCKER WHERE IS PRINCE?

    • avatar
      April 2, 2018 at 5:38 pm

      If I’m going back to the magical online fantasy 80s, I’m dressing up like the cover of motherfucking Purple Rain.

    • avatar
      April 2, 2018 at 6:38 pm

      As Brandon Link Copp-Millward and I were discussing above. There’s certainly a limit to what they can reasonably do in a movie because of the the finances and time available. Like there are a lot of iconic singers from the 80s and you certainly can’t have EVERY song in the movie. But you’d think they’d at least try to have some variety so that it seemed more representative.

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