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Ready Player One: Nostalgia as a Storytelling Device

I don't think I can recall a more enjoyable time in the cinema recently than when I saw Ready Player One earlier this summer. A big screen, the theater all to myself - what could be better? I'm not being sarcastic either, I really did love this film. I did have a worry that when I got it on Blu-ray some months later that I wouldn't enjoy it as much. This happened when I saw Avatar back in 2009/2010. Loved it in the cinema, then I realised the cinema did all the work because I was a bit bored watching it on DVD at home.

But, as it turned out, I loved Ready Player One just as much watching it at home as I did in the cinema. At the end of the day it was just a fun story, pure and simple. Sure, the pop culture references are a bit overkill at times, but I knew what I was getting so I didn't mind. I loved seeing the Delorean, the T-Rex and Kong, The Iron Giant and all the background characters that show up like Master Chief and Duke Nukem.

What I didn't like about the film? Well, all the references that went over my head. Take, for example, the final test that involves playing an old classic game. Sure I like games, and I know a bit about video game history, but I don't know every game and sometimes I felt as though I should have done my homework before going into this. There was also that scene where Daito turns into Gundam to fight Mech Godzilla. I don't know much about Godzilla lore and I know even less about Gundam. These big reveals, which we were clearly meant to be impressed by, didn't have the desired effect on me.

Okay, so maybe that's just my ignorance holding me back. I did love the film, but I've said it before, audiences shouldn't have to do their homework before watching a film. Nostalgic and pop culture references are great as an extra layer of meaning, but it shouldn’t be used as the source of the drama or the punctuation to a scene. Remember, if the viewer isn’t fluent in pop culture references from the 80s, they won’t get what you are trying to do.

Ready Player One is what it is. It’s thoroughly enjoyable no doubt but it’s also dependent on very interchangeable references to games and movies. One scene has the heroes of the story entering The Overlook Hotel from The Shining. This was never in the original book, where instead the characters were caught up in a reference to the 80s classic War Games. The fact that Spielberg put in The Shining to satisfy his own inner nerd is proof of how inessential some of these references are. A great story is the sum of its parts and those parts shouldn’t be so easily interchangeable. If you're going to build a huge chunk of your movie around The Shining, build it into the fabric of the story.

Imagine if Aech, Wade's towering sidekick character, expresses a fear of horror references from the very beginning. Imagine if Freddy Kruger or some other reference makes an appearance in the first race and throws them off their game. The fact then, that Aech would have to enter The Overlook later on would have so much more weight to it just by the fact that we've established their fear of horror movies. They do reference this fear, but only right before the sequence. That's too late. A greater attention to this detail would make that section  feel more integral to the growth of the characters. Sadly, these connections between the references that the movie is built around and the characters that populate the movie just doesn't exist.

That’s the danger with this new trend of nostalgic and pop culture reference based storytelling - it’s used like currency - the more references you drop in, the better the film is supposed to be. That can certainly grant the audience immediate gratification, but once the initial excitement fades away, it isn’t going to be enough to carry the movie if those connections aren't meaningful. Guardians of the Galaxy is one example of how to do this well. In Guardians, Chris Pratt's Star Lord listens to an 80s mix tape on his old walkman. In any other movie this could easily feel tacked on and purely aesthethic. However, we know that there's a connection between his walkman and the night his mother died. There's a symbolic importance to the 80s music that helps us to better understand the character.

In Ready Player One, it is expected that the viewer will have a fluent understanding of these references, if they are to get maximum enjoyment out of the film. You can certainly enjoy the film without that fluency, but one must assume that Spielberg and his screenwriters put this stuff in there for our benefit.

So what happens if you can't connect with these references at all? Imagine you are a teenager watching this 30 years from now. Will it make sense at all? I guess what I'm asking is; do films like this have an expiration date? Not in terms of trends, but in terms of how effective they will be down the line as new audiences come in.

Imagine a film that makes very precise and specific references to the golden age of Hollywood -  Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and so on. Only references from this era, and on a level that would rival Ready Player One. Would audiences of today understand the film? Would the story make sense? If so, then it raises another question - are the references even needed or meaningful,  or, far more likely, are they just dropped in for that immediate gratification? If it's the latter, then those filmmakers and screenwriters might have a bigger problem on their hands...

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