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How Ready Player One fails geek culture

Contributed by
Apr 2, 2018

 

The Steven Spielberg-directed  Ready Player One should be nerdvana. The visionary behind Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, and E.T. makes a movie based on Ernest Cline's novel, a gamer quest with a slew of references to awesome '80s movies, from Back to the Future and Star Wars to Buckaroo Banzai and The Goonies. But somehow, when it all comes together onscreen, Ready Player One doesn't feel like a joyous celebration of geek culture but a blatant and lazy attempt to cash in on our collective nostalgia and tap into its worst impulses. 

 

WARNING: Spoilers for Ready Player One lie ahead.  (Also spoilers for The Iron Giant.) 

 

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These aren't the characters you love.

Centering on the adventure of a gamer who follows a path of clues in a VR world to save the real world, Ready Player One wants you to believe it's a love letter to nerds. But this isn't like Wreck-It Ralph, where its makers dedicatedly recreated 8-bit figures in 3D animation and made sure that Bowser spit fireballs when stressed out and Q*bert spoke only in his signature gibberish. Details like that made clear those filmmakers strove to be true to the characters they were recreating out of respect to those games and their fans. All of that attention to detail helped ground the world of Wreck-It Ralph's arcade. Beyond that, these allusions gave audiences a chance to see these known characters in a new environment, and how they'd shape it. So—in a sense—it gave us a new chapter in their stories. 

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Ready Player One isn’t playing that game. You'll see He-Man running into battle alongside Catwoman, and Harley Quinn hanging out in a dance club in the Oasis, the virtual world where gamers intermingle. But these aren't the characters you know and love. Within the movie, these are the chosen avatars of anonymous gamers around the world. Their cameos tell us nothing new about He-Man or Harley, as they are in no way bound to behave as they would in canon. Now, avatars like this are an element of current nerd culture. On various forms of social media and gaming, we employ imagery from things we love to tell the world how we see ourselves. But its use in Ready Player One doesn't tell us much about the Oasis, except that someone somewhere likes He-Man. 

The irony is that Ready Player One demonizes those who are only interested in geek culture on a superficial level, while being an aspiring blockbuster that shows only a cursory knowledge of the very culture it claims to revere. 

 

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There are insults to the characters you love.

A big element of promoting Ready Player One has been showing its inclusion of the Iron Giant, the beloved robot at the heart of the adored 1999 animated feature. In his own movie, the Iron Giant's defining moment is when he declares, "I am not a gun." Then his final act of bravery is not one of violence, but one of self-sacrifice. The Iron Giant leaves his dear friend Hogarth behind and flies straight into the missile that would blow the tiny Maine town to smithereens. He takes the hit. He is Superman. He is a hero who refused to be a weapon but still saved the day. 

 

In Ready Player One, the Iron Giant is an avatar of top-notch gamer Aech. Despite the fact that the titular character's entire arc in The Iron Giant was about how he chose not to be the weapon, Ready Player One only uses him as a giant gun in its climactic battle. Some are already venting their frustrations on Twitter about this misuse of the definitely anti-gun character. But this isn't even the only assault on Iron Giant fans that this movie has in store. Because when Ready Player One does decide to be true to this character, it's to kill him. Aech lays down the life of the Iron Giant to save her friends, using him as a literal bridge before he falls to his demise. So we watch this sweet-eyed behemoth die again. Never mind that the original Iron Giant could fly, which would have made this self-sacrifice completely unnecessary. Clearly, Spielberg and his team were cherrypicking without much attention to their sources' themes, feelings, or powers. 

 

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Being a fan shouldn't be a test.

A more caustic element of Ready Player One is the way it uses allusions as a litmus test of cool. In one scene, Parzival readies for a virtual date with Art3mis, and decides he'll wear a suit from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. On one level, it's supposed to show her he's cool enough to know this cult classic. But, he tells his confidante Aech, it's also meant to see if Art3mis will get it. What's implied here: Is she a real fan, or some Fake Geek Girl? Of course, Art3mis—the manic pixel dream girl that she is—recognizes it and thinks he's super cool, because Ready Player One is nothing if not a fantasy for straight fanboys who dream of hot gamer chicks who'll get all their references to obscure (or not-that-obscure) sci-fi. But that's not the end of this tedious testing thread. 

 

The villain of this film is Nolan Sorrento, a businessman who literally murders people, but whose true crime seems to be only valuing geek culture for the money it can make him. Ready Player One sets out to show us that Sorrento isn't a true fan by having Parzival test him with John Hughes movie trivia. (Because the only way to love a thing is to deep-dive on every bit of inane trivia, and everyone else is a poser who threatens geek culture?) The irony is that Ready Player One demonizes those who are only interested in geek culture on a superficial level, while being an aspiring blockbuster that shows only a cursory knowledge of the very culture it claims to revere. All it gives fans is a kind of Where's Waldo where you could spend hours rewatching sequences to pluck out all the references tossed about the Oasis. For some, that'll be a fun game. But for me, it showed exactly the kind of feigned appreciation and greedy exploitation of these things for which it chastises its villain. 

 

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Fandom should be about community, not exclusion.

Plenty of us have had the unpleasant experience of having our fan status questioned by those who think we're not fan enough. The Fake Geek Girl meme was born out of the sexist idea that women couldn't truly appreciate comics, video games, and genre movies. Sadly, Ready Player One plays into this toxic element of geek culture by acting like being a fan is something you need to prove. Perhaps that was unavoidable, considering the premise of Cline's book was all about becoming the most obsessive fan of enigmatic celebrity James Halliday. That doesn't excuse the film, which could have aspired toward more. At its best, geek culture is about reveling in and discussing the thing you love with other fans. At its worst, it devolves into bullying and one-upmanship that tears a could-be community apart. 

 

The story of Ready Player One's hero Wade Watts suggests there is one right way to fan. Notably, the one who figures out this one true path is a straight, white, cisgender fanboywhich suggests that to be a "Real Fan" you must like things on the terms of dominant (and often exclusionary) fanboy culture. Spielberg could have opened up things if the characters of color or women took a stronger role in the film. But despite the heroics of the other members of the High Five, they are ultimately sidelined as sidekicks to Wade. Alternately, Spielberg could have explored new pathways into the familiar characters he folds in by using familiar avatars to explore elements of fan fiction, a sphere of fandom that's often more female- and LGBTQA+-friendly. But there's no interest in that beyond the slapdash inclusion of the Iron Giant, which felt more like a shortcut to bringing some heart-sinking wallop into an otherwise emotionally flat finale. 

 

The opening voiceover in Ready Player One claims the Oasis is a place of limitless imagination, but what's presented is naked pandering to nerd culture without any interest in bringing life to the characters it co-opts. Instead, the movie uses popular pre-existing characters as a cheap means to excite and engage the audience in a way its original characters seem incapable of. Ready Player One feels like Spielberg dumped out a collective toy box but wasn't interested in playing with its incredible contents. It's a wasted opportunity, and worse yet a lazy exploitation of geek culture that promotes its more toxic elements of sexism, self-righteousness, and fan-versus-fan hostility. What could have been an inclusive celebration is instead determined to divide us. 

 

Here's my advice: Love the things you love however you like. And if that includes Ready Player One, cool. But don't be a jerk about it.