So, I didn't get most of the video game references. And most of the music references. And I definitely missed the "Excalibur" reference. I spent quite a bit of "Ready Player One" wondering what the experience of watching the movie would be like for someone who hardly knew any of the references. In thirty years, is this movie even going to be watchable for kids who have no idea what any of this is referencing at all?
Well, Steven Spielberg is a good enough filmmaker that the basics of the treasure hunt are still going to come across. However, if you're not pop culture savvy to some extent, so much of the experience of watching "Ready Player One" is lost. There's an undeniable pleasure to spotting King Kong during the first race, or recognizing those couple of notes from Alan Silvestri's "Back to the Future" score when the Zemeckis Cube is deployed. I'm glad the filmmakers cast the net wide enough that there's something for everyone. The Gundam should be a hit with Asian audiences. The Iron Giant is a favorite for Millennials. My favorite, no surprise, was the recreation of the Overlook Hotel from "The Shining."
And it is a stunning recreation, put together by Spielberg, who we know was a friend and a fan of Stanley Kubrick's work. And it's a good reminder that Spielberg is himself a fan like his young protagonists, and a pretty good candidate for a James Halliday-like figure himself. I suspect this is a big reason why he took pains to minimize the appearance of his own movie creations in the world of the Oasis. The whole point of "Ready Player One" is allowing him to play with the cool toys created by other artists. This is why I don't buy the criticism that some of the pop culture characters are being misused. The Iron Giant who appears here is not the friendly star of 1999's "The Iron Giant," who learns about non-violence. He's just a facsimile being borrowed by Aech in the big robot battle.
So the movie often strikes me as just one big, expensive game of pretend, and didn't we all want to play our favorite movies and comics for pretend when we were kids? You can even see some of those old schoolyard negotiations going on if you squint. Ernest Cline gets to keep in the DeLorean from "Back to the Future" and Spielberg gets to bring in "The Shining" ghoulies, and our neighbor said that we could play with their Gundam as long as we're careful with it. And like all games of pretend, the logic is often precarious, and the story is derivative to the extreme, but you can't help getting caught up in the excitement and the creativity of the players. Or at least grin at how much fun they're having.
I have some major reservations about what kinds of mixed messages the film is ultimately conveying, even if it's not on purpose. It's frustrating to see a film that gets so much right about fandom and online interactions largely ignore their dark sides. At the same time, I feel like a Grinch coming in and ruining people's fun by dictating how they're supposed to play with their toys. Then again, the movie clearly isn't meant just for kids, and the toys mostly come from the childhoods of people who are in their thirties and forties - people who it's perfectly right to remind that nostalgia comes with consequences, and that the nerds need to work on being inclusive just like everyone else these days.
Don't think I didn't notice the distinct lack of references to media aimed at girls and women in "Ready Player One." That dance club sequence easily could have featured a "Dirty Dancing" or "Flashdance" homage as easily as it did a "Saturday Night Fever" one. And the parallels to "Labyrinth" were obvious. I have a very different image of '80s pop culture than Ernest Cline and Steven Spielberg do, one that wasn't always positive. And though I love many of the same pieces of it, I'm not onboard with pretending that it was nearly as universal or accessible or as inclusive as the movie might suggest. And there's no shame in not getting the reference or being bad at video games or not liking the things that other people love.