It may only be March but Ready Player One is marking itself out as one of the most controversial films of 2018. Steven Spielberg’s latest tentpole, based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, is one of Warner Bros. key releases of the year, and as a new property would typically be the cause of much excitement. However, you don’t have to look hard to find a rather strong backlash against it.
And, of course, that’s because to call it a “new property” may be a bit of an overstatement. Set in 2044 middle America, Ready Player One imagines a future where the world has been driven to the brink by energy wars, global warming and overpopulation, so wiles away its time in an immersive virtual reality known as the Oasis where the only limit is imagination. And, because this is a “real future“, those imagination limits center on pop culture: the film is a collage of iconic figures, from the overt Back to the Future Delorean as the ride of our hero who’s close friends with the Iron Giant, to the Easter Egg strewn battlegrounds where Freddy Krueger and Chucky take on Spartans and Tracer.
With less than a month until release, Ready Player One is under the mainstream microscope, and the excitement levels are decidedly mixed: for every fan of the book awaiting a deserving adaptation, there’s someone else shuddering at the thought of the movie. What’s this all about? And is it totally fair?
This Page: The Ready Player One Backlash
Page 3: The Problem With The Posters
What Is The Ready Player One Backlash About?
The main crux of the negative buzz forReady Player One really seems to stem from the book. Ernest Cline’s successful and acclaimed tome may be praised by some (including Warner Bros. in the trailers) as a “pop culture holy grail“, but many others find it aggressively and baselessly touring in nostalgia, treating an ability to bathe in such throwbacks as something transcendent. Indeed, as the many snapshot pages that go viral on Twitter prove, it’s often references for references’ sake; a rundown of well-known geek and pop culture touchstones that build the suggestion that knowing more trivia and getting more in-jokes is true power.
The purpose is, of course, to build a metatextuality to this futuristic tale. Stories – be they in books, comics, films or on TV – that exist in a future without any cultural connection to our own can often feel unreal or false (and those with glancing choice references, often dictated by product placement or studio rights, can feel conversely forced), and that would be doubly true of one where the sci-fi method is a form escapism. The issue lies in how this aspect dominates Ready Player One.
And when it comes to the movie, the marketing wholeheartedly leaned into it. The San Diego Comic-Con trailer set up the Oasis, but then went deep into Easter Egg overdrive, throwing lots of CGI references at the screen without explaining to audiences why they should care. That’s fine within the powder-keg of Hall H but doesn’t play as well wide, and was doubly true when later trailers overwhelmed story beats with even more cameos and winks. The movie sold was an immensely faithful take on Cline’s work, with all the sycophancy translated. Things have been exploded recently by a slew of one-sheets that photoshop the main characters into posters for the likes of Blade Runner, The Matrix, Labyrinth, Bullitt, The Lost Boys, among others, a move that only continue the rather baseless riffing.
All of this makes for a strange cocktail of a movie, but the underlying problem with all this is more contextual. Ready Player One is typically viewed as being a white male fantasy, celebrating the sorts of geek landmarks that are dominated in the discussion by the typical, old-school nerd culture. That’s inherent – if not all-encompassing – and while not immediately toxic, risks being that way, which is not very fitting of the modern climate; the film comes out in the same month as A Wrinkle In Time, Tomb Raider and Pacific Rim Uprising, each of which features a female or person of color lead (or, in the former case, both). Ready Player One isn’t just bathing in the past, it’s doing so against the grain of progression. It’s not just the methodology, it’s what it represents.
Now, nothing about these readings is exactly wrong, but isn’t quite fair to so prematurely tarnish the film.
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