Do you like the 1980s? Do your eyes get misty when you think back to video games with 8-bit graphics? Do you who Gary Gygax is? Does the phrase “Krull” bring back any memories? How do you feel about Rush?
These are the questions posed by Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s latest film, and the self-proclaimed “holy grail of pop culture.” Debuting with a shiny, CGI laden teaser trailer during this weekend’s Comic-Con festivities, it was adapted from Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel of the same name. On the surface, the story presents as a virtual reality adventure that pits its charming nerd protagonist, Wade Watts, against a nefarious tech corporation called “Innovative Online Industries.” With a plot that’s one part Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (eccentric billionaire creates contest to find a worthy heir) and one part The Matrix, your enjoyment of the story is dependent on whether or not you’re willing to suspend your disbelief, and to what extent you can stomach a flurry of retro references.
It goes a little something like this: in the not-so-distant dystopian future, Watts is among the hordes who escape their daily drudgeries by logging into a virtual reality game called The Oasis. When James Halliday, the game’s wealthy founder, dies, his fortune is hidden in an easter egg hunt within the game—but Wade’s fellow players aren’t the only ones after the prize.
Though the race to win The Oasis is a handy plot vehicle with a timely net neutrality spin, the real payoff is in the project’s pop culture references. In the book, Kline’s thorough retread of ’80s geek culture means that music, movies, games, and even minor celebrities with nerd appeal all find their way into the narrative. Within a world packed with meta mentions of popular franchises and fandom-focused media—characters gain keys thanks to their knowledge of Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Schoolhouse Rock—readers are rewarded for being in the loop. The more obscure the shoutout– Zork, anyone?–the greater the pat on the back. The novel is a reading experience not totally unlike a trivia night or pub quiz.
It’s also pretty cynical. Designed to appeal to Gen Xers, Xennials, and anyone old enough to reminisce, the film falls comfortably into Hollywood’s current fixation with nostalgia commodification. With Disney mining its animation vaults for stories with live action potential, a new Star Wars spinoff scheduled to arrive every year, and Stranger Things out Spielberg-ing Spielberg, there’s real money to be made in giving people more of the things that they already enjoy. As a relatively unknown and expensive property, despite its nerd appeal, Ready Player One is by comparison a risk– look no further than Valerian’s box office failure for an example of what happens when audiences can’t connect to a pricey sci-fi vehicle. Its many snippets of proven fan faves may work in its favor once it’s 2018 release date rolls around. Though Spielberg has reportedly made several changes from the source material, courtesy of a script by Kline and his co-writer, Zak Penn, lessening the number of references to his own oeuvre and adding a new set of easter eggs, this is a more is more situation: in under three minutes of teaser trailer, the Iron Giant is revived, a Delorean speeds across the screen, and Freddie Kruger clashes with Duke Nukem for a toy chest’s worth of vintage heroes and villains.
While a teaser trailer can only reveal so much, the sheer amount of references packed in–Lord of the Rings, Batman, Tomb Raider, Mad Max, Akira, etc.–means there are likely to be hundreds more in the final film. Still, the moments spent in “the stacks,” the expansive Ohio trailer park where Wade’s offline hours are spent, hints at a greater issue with Hollywood’s current mindset. “There’s nowhere left to go– nowhere except the Oasis,” Wade tells himself as he straps into a VR rig. “It’s the only place that feels like I mean anything, a world where the limits of reality are your own imagination.” Escaping into the Oasis, Wade can shake off the poverty that surrounds him, but if imagination’s limits equate to little more than bright lights and borrowed intellectual property, where does that leave the rest of us?