Ready Player One, Nostalgia, and Missing the Point

by Michael B. Hock

Nostalgia sells.

That is not a controversial statement or a new thought… Some of the top movies and television shows have played off this idea. Stranger Things on Netflix played off this, not only in it’s 1980’s setting but by casting Winona Ryder and Sean Astin. We’re getting sequels to long gone television series, like Will and Grace and for some reason, Roseanne. I mean… after three Star Wars Prequels that went out of their way to introduce the idea that a Galaxy of weird aliens pretty much boiled down to about 8 people who knew each other, they finally said, “screw it” and got the band back together for three more movies. The latest of which took a lot of heat for suggesting that those 8 people aren’t the only ones in the Galaxy.

What’s a more wild idea is that we are always driven by nostalgia. Quantum Leap was a science fiction show that very much played in the Baby Boomer Sandbox. And while the Wonder Years was a fun show, it wasn’t carried solely on the charms of the kid from the Princess Bride. There are Shakespeare plays where characters yearn for the days of old. There’s always been a vein of “hey, things used to be great” that seeps into pop culture that we like to return to.

Which is why Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One was so embraced. Again, not a controversial statement, and something I delved into when I read the book in one sitting for the old Bad Shakespeare website. It was nerd culture from the 1980’s (back when being a nerd wasn’t cool) all distilled down to book form. Like all books that are well received, it’s being turned into a movie, and some of the marketing for it is… interesting. Let’s go with interesting. I’m not a huge fan of “hey, let’s throw out the latest hot take based on these few minutes of advertising,” but the marketing for this film is different. It’s not just the blatant use of the Iron Giant in much of it’s marketing, it’s the posters that were released last week. Posters that may be indicating that the movie has already kind of lost it’s way.

The posters all center around classic movie posters, replaced with images of the digital avatars of the characters. For those of you unfamiliar with the book, (and I do recommend it, the first two thirds is brilliant and the last one third is certainly part of a book) it’s about a digital world called the Oasis, created by an eccentric millionaire who is obsessed with pop culture from the 1980’s, because you should write what you know. Naturally, a movie version of this was going to be hard to make, because as recently as two years ago The Avengers couldn’t say “Spider-Man” despite the fact that Peter Parker plays a pivotal role in one of the movies they were about to make. (Fortunately, they managed to squeeze him in with shots that aren’t awkward at all.) So, having Pac Man team up with a guy driving the DeLorean so they could quote all of Monty Python and The Holy Grail was going to be a bit of a challenge.

Back to the movie posters. This is where I’m starting to get a little concerned, in that it’s taking away the reasons nostalgia works, and why I felt so much of the last part of the book worked. Nostalgia isn’t simply events. It’s a feeling. It’s a reminder of why we like the things that we like. That’s what Ready Player One captured for me the first time reading it: that feeling of hanging out with friends. This is also why Oasis and the book was so brilliant: it wasn’t just about a kid trying to find the magic clues so he could start a revolution. This is the point I feel a lot of people missed. It’s really about James Halliday, the inventor of the Oasis. It’s about how we process that feeling of nostalgia. It’s about this guy who wanted to share that feeling with everyone. It’s then corrupted by corporations.

Which is why movie is a bad idea. And these new movie posters are starting to show that. They are the very thing that this book tries to rail against: replacing nostalgia with something manufactured. Look, I get why they made it: They’re fun. Hey, here’s the Breakfast Club, but with the characters who look bad-ass like they do in their video game. You liked Rambo, apparently, here’s… yeah, I’m not sure how that one works other than being part of the 1980’s. But what really concerns me is the fact that we’re getting ones from the Matrix… which is also about a largely simulated world, one that was considered bad, and is from 1999.

Like I said originally, I’m the guy who hates hot takes or reviews of movies done before they are even out. But I connected to the book Ready Player One because of ti’s ability to tap into something I loved. I’m cautious about the movie. Could be great. Hell, I’m hoping it’s going to be great. But as of right now, it’s dangerous to hitting on the wrong path, and missing the point. Of course I’ll be checking it out, and I will be letting you know what I think.

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