Ready Player One
seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens NY
I have so much to say about Ready Player One that I'm dividing this post into segments. It's much easier for both of us. Trust me.
1. The internet and internet culture
2. Ernest Cline's 80s vs. my 80s
3. Steven Spielberg's 80s
5. RP1 the movie
1. The internet and internet culture
I went online in 2000, thinking I could and should control the amount of time spent on my computer. I wasn't gonna be one of those nerds who had nothing better to do all day than argue about The Phantom Menace on Usenet. Not me.
More to the point, a part of me was afraid to do so. I suspect I didn't fully trust the net back then (not that it's completely benign now), thinking of it as a necessary evil for getting along in the 21st century and nothing more.
How little I knew.
For me, and for others, I imagine, the net works best when it's a conduit for building communities. One of the first websites at which I felt truly at home was frequented by people I already knew in real life, but ever since, I've made many friends I've never met in person. Can I say I really "know" them the way I would if they lived here in NYC (theoretically)?
I like to think, for instance, I know someone like Michelle better than some of my local friends, but that's because she has (had? It's been awhile since she's updated it) a blog, but even that represents what she chooses to show the world, just like this blog represents what I choose to show. I've been fooled by online personas in the past, but fortunately, she strikes me as being honest and always has.
The temptation to be someone else online, especially within a community, has got to be strong for a certain kind of individual. I've never felt it to the same degree because, like I said, I already know many of my online friends in real life. There would have been no point in pretending. Someone with few friends in reality, who isn't sociable naturally, well, that's different.
I can relate. At one point during QWFF back in March, I remember watching Katha, an extremely extroverted, dynamic woman, addressing the audience at a screening and thinking, "I wish I could be like that," if only for a little while, say a week or even a day.
Running my writing group forced me to be more of a take-charge, outgoing person, but that would've been tricky to sustain over long periods, so I grok the desire to adopt a persona not my own in the name of being (more) popular. The net makes it easy, maybe too easy, yet I'd still take reality, as flawed and limited as it is.
But what if reality was totally FUBAR?
2. Ernest Cline's 80s vs. my 80s
As a film blogger, it's easy to immerse myself in the movies of the distant past and admire their enjoyable stories, their magnetic actors, their cinematography, costumes, sets, etc., and forget that stories which reflect my life and experiences were few and far between.
The Ernest Cline novel Ready Player One holds up a recent time period, the 1980s, as this golden era of pop culture goodness. In the book, people of the future immerse themselves in the 80s through the biggest virtual reality game system, the OASIS, to forget the real world. Why? Because the real world has gone to hell and it's no fun to live in anymore.
The 80s gets flack for plenty of things: its fashion sense, its big hair, its music, hell, for having Ronald Reagan as president, but I came of age in the decade and from my perspective, I dug it, and still do. Beyond the pop cultural aspects, I made some good friends, my desire to be an artist germinated and grew, I began to think for myself by questioning beliefs I had been taught to be true, and most importantly, I fell in love with a girl who changed my life in profound ways. I was lucky.
Many of the 80s touchstones Cline employs in RP1 were part of my experience, but for a book that relies so much on nostalgia, I was dismayed at how — I hate to admit it — whitebread it was. In a decade in which black culture went mainstream in a huge way for the first time, Wade, the protagonist, doesn't seem to listen to Michael Jackson or Prince or Run-DMC, doesn't watch The Cosby Show on TV or Eddie Murphy in the movies.
I realize Cline couldn't reference everything from the 80s, but these were among the cream of the crop. These were superstars, but Cline seemed to prefer the more obscure (white) stuff: Ladyhawke and Oingo Boingo and They Might Be Giants. It would have been nice if Wade's tastes were more diverse, is all.
RP1 also ignores sports. I can understand this a little better; neither Wade nor the OASIS creators are jocks and sports probably intimidated them. I can't relate to that; I wasn't a jock either, but to me, sports are as integral to pop culture as anything else, and the 80s were a great time to be a sports fan, particularly in New York (the Islanders, Mets and Giants all had championship seasons).
True, it's still more acceptable socially to dress up in a uniform replica or to be a sabermetrician than doing or being the same for, say, World of Warcraft, but I'm proof that it's possible to have a foot in both the jock and nerd camps (at least as a kid). Those labels are oversimplified, but you get what I mean.
RP1 is a reflection of many 80s influences, so perhaps it's only appropriate the film adaptation was directed by the guy who defined 80s film for nerds everywhere: Steven Spielberg.
3. Spielberg's 80s
I remember watching Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories on TV as a kid. I'm pretty sure I was aware of him as the director of ET, and even if I wasn't, it was hard to miss his name branded on the NBC promos.
It was basically a modern Twilight Zone/Outer Limits kind of show, featuring stars from the past and the present. Among the directors who worked on it included Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Joe Dante, Tobe Hooper and even Brad Bird, when he was a no-name. There are plans to bring it back.
I think, though I'm not sure, that this show may have led me to discover TZ; I am sure the show was a big deal for me at the time. In addition to challenging my imagination on a weekly basis, it cemented the Spielberg name further in my mind.
Spielberg in the 80s was all about two enduring franchises: Indiana Jones as a director and Back to the Future as a producer, in addition to ET, of course. Throw in his other producer credits on Poltergeist, Gremlins, The Goonies and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (not to mention The Land Before Time, which has gone on to an astonishingly long life in direct-to-video sequels), and Spielberg has been behind some of the most iconic films of a generation.
That generation was mine, Gen X, and these films have become a kind of lingua franca for us. We can tell you, and each other, how we first heard of Future, where we first saw Raiders or Temple, who our favorite Goonie was. As the Golden Age of television united baby boomers, so these films (and others like them) brought us together, and not just the films, but the merchandise: video games, comics, action figures, lunchboxes, fast food tie-ins, etc.
What George Lucas begat with Star Wars, Spielberg — and Donner, Zemeckis, Dante and the rest — built upon until they cornered the market on our childhoods. Perhaps a book and movie like RP1 was inevitable.
(Brief word about The Color Purple that's kind of related: producer Quincy Jones wanted Spielberg to direct, and when he said he knew nothing about being a black Southerner, Jones said, "Did you have to be an alien to direct ET?")
Spielberg favored suburban settings in Mid-American towns. The film of RP1 is set in a typical Midwest city that has become a thriving metropolis in the near-future world of the story, a city I know a little something about.
2018 marks ten years since I left New York for the Midwest, on a trip I had thought was permanent. Living in Columbus didn't work out for several reasons, but I don't regret the trying.
At the time I lived there, I had believed the town was just under the radar of most Americans. That might be changing. Are you aware, for example, of C-bus' status as the go-to focus-group city in America? I had never noticed it when I was there. It's a kind of backhanded compliment: Madison Avenue loves C-bus because it's so average!
Silly as it may seem, I saw RP1 as potentially the town's big moment in the spotlight. Columbus references in the movies are few and far between: Jesse Eisenberg's character in Zombieland is called Columbus because he's trying to get there; it's his home. The sequel to Morgan Spurlock's fast food doc Super Size Me was set in Columbus. And...
Well, you see what I mean. Unfortunately, some other city stood in for my beloved C-bus; no location shots in the film looked at all familiar, not even the skyline. I realize RP1 is set in the "near future," but still, it didn't show the city off like I had hoped it would: the Art Deco Leveque building, the OSU campus, the fabulous arches of High Street, etc. It's more than just college football, y'know...
5. RP1 the movie
So finally, let's talk about the movie proper. The OASIS creator just died, and in his will he offered ownership of the game to the one who can win it. A stereotypical corporate empire tries to win so they can privatize the game, but one ubergeek, with a little help from his friends, is out to stop them and win the game himself — and maybe learn a thing or two about living life for real in the process.
Like Avengers: Infinity War, it's a geek wet dream because it unites so many familiar characters and items from around pop culture, at least the ones Warner Bros. either owns outright or were allowed to use for this movie.
Cline, who co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn, made some fundamental changes to the plot (no playing Matthew Broderick in WarGames start to finish; no use of the Rush album 2112), probably due to rights issues, but the story is essentially the same. There's a sequence set in The Shining's Overlook Hotel that's a very faithful re-creation.
Sixteen-year-old me would've FREAKED OUT over this movie, or more to the point, this kind of movie, but now, I dunno. Even now, over a month after I've seen it, I'm kind of "meh" about it, and I think it may be because the movie of RP1 I saw in my mind as I read the book didn't match the actual one I saw — and while I understand the reasons for that, sometimes imagination is better. Now, though, movies can create anything we can imagine. Literally, anything. I'm not sure how I feel about that.
Spielberg has said he believes RP1 could come true, and given the state of the world now, it's not hard to imagine. Audiences want to immerse themselves in fantasy more than ever, and not just in movies. Meanwhile, those whom we put in charge of our lives continue to be motivated by self-interest and political survival rather than a desire to make a better world — so why not veg out in make-believe, which is so much better? I totally understand. I'm no different.
But maybe there's another way.