We are neck-deep in an era of ’80s nostalgia.
From the neon-soaked, synth-ridden vibes of Drive to the E.T. homage that is Stranger Things, pop culture seems to have settled on the ’80s as the go-to place for evoking a feeling of “yesteryear”, of “just-out-of-reach”.
Steven Spielberg’s latest blockbuster, the sci-fi action film, Ready Player One, is the crest of this wave.
The story, if you can call it that, is as follows:
A reclusive, two-dimensional genius named Halliday conceives a VR world called The Oasis, and then creates an Easter egg hunt within it.
The winner of this hunt will own Halliday’s company, and run The Oasis.
Our hero, Wade Watts, is a young man living in the slums alongside swarms of VR-obsessed citizens, all living most of their lives inside The Oasis. Wade, via his in-game avatar, Parzival, and his upstart friends, make a bid for the Egg.
What ensues is a chase between cliched corporate suits and plucky, sarcastic teens in retro clothing.
Peak ’80s nostalgia
Many of the characters are directly lifted from ’80s films and video games, with everyone from Freddy Krueger to Duke Nukem to Hello Kitty making an appearance.
“It’s pastiche!”, you might say. “It’s a tribute to eighties movies!”
No. It’s a self-indulgent fantasy-world; a quilt woven from endless, lazy references to things from the ’80s that the author fetishises. Maybe you’re cool enough to get those references — do you know who Buckaroo Banzai is? Then come on in, sir, away from the riff raff — but maybe you’re not.
Ready Player One is set in slums filled with VR-obsessed citizens, all living most of their lives inside The Oasis. (Supplied: Warner Bros Pictures)
Who is this kind of tributary artefact for? For people like Cline. People who enjoy the aesthetics and auditory trappings of ’80s nostalgia without any care for what lay underneath the neon and Formica and brushed steel.
The ’80s is where most of Hollywood’s deified male auteurs cut their teeth, so it’s the breeding ground for many of our biggest Western cultural artefacts.
It’s just far enough in the past to be nostalgic, but close enough to be full of big-budget, mainstream-nerd stuff.
Cline is the worst kind of geek: a gatekeeper. The only way to get past his gates is to get his ’80s references.
Ready Player One is filled with 1980s reference, like this Joy Division t-shirt. (Supplied: Warner Bros Pictures)
How ’80s references should work
Here’s how references to ’80s pop culture should work.
In Stranger Things, the utterly wonderful ’80s homage series currently on Netflix, the kids play vintage Dungeons and Dragons and solve mysteries, but they do it in the ’80s, so it’s not an unsubtle nod, it’s a period piece.
If the kids mention Ghostbusters, it’s because a group of nerdy suburban kids living in that era would be obsessed with Ghostbusters.
At no point do they look down the lens and yell “we’re wearing proton packs, just like THE GHOSTBUSTERS, the movie directed by IVAN REITMAN”.
Stranger Things is an “utterly wonderful” Netflix series set in the 1980s. (Supplied: Netflix)
Misfits without hearts of gold
The characters of Ready Player One are modelled on the misfits, outcasts and loners that fill ’80s narratives like The Goonies and Stand by Me.
In ’80s films, these misunderstood warriors with hearts of gold achieve feats of heroism against all odds, beat back the bullies and save the day.
The through-line of ’80s cinema and TV seem to be: the meek shall inherit the Earth.
Most of the characters in Ready Player One spend most of their lives inside the VR world, The Oasis. (Supplied: Warner Bros Pictures)
But does Halliday, creator of The Oasis in Ready Player One, save the world with all the money he got? Does he fix the environment? Battle inequality?
No. He turns into a sociopathic Willy Wonka. He turns into a jerk.
“Aha!”, I hear you crying. “You see? It IS commentary! It’s a cautionary tale!”
Only, no. It isn’t.
An empty Easter egg
Whip off the tablecloth of references, and underneath is a blank surface. The film is hollow, just like a real Easter egg: there’s nothing inside.
Nostalgia for the ’80s needs to be a garnish, not a main ingredient.
You can spray us with endless references to the recent past, sure, but you need to give us something more. We need substance.
I’m aware of the irony in referencing Star Wars here, but in the immortal words of Admiral Ackbar … “it’s a trap!”
Ready Player One opens in Australian cinemas on March 29.