Before going to the movie, I was not that interested in it. After all, I lived through the eighties, and I wasn’t that nostalgic for the time. I thought much of the music then was lame, and the insistence on money and appearing successful was not something that I found very appealing. I supposed that it would be a cute popcorn movie, and it was. There were moments in it that made me smile. And yet, after I left the theater, a darkness began to grow in me as I realized what it was about the movie that I hadn’t liked.
Needless to say, Spoilers follow.
Ready Player One is about a young man who lives in a trailer park in a future in the depths of a worldwide recession. No one has capital except those who made money in the eighties from the gaming boom and the Oasis, a sort of cross between the internet and a World of Warcraft server.
Pretty much everyone in the world is connected to this server virtually all the time. Because real life is so lame, people live virtual lives where they can be whoever they want to be, and they are so invested in their online persona, that losing their virtual life is enough reason to commit suicide. Some people mortgage their lives away to get in-game items and end up in debt in places called Loyalty Centers which are the futuristic equivalent of company towns, places that trap people in debt for life.
Our main character is an orphan living with his aunt. He is one of the many people trying to find hidden Easter Eggs in the program which will give him great wealth, and ownership of the Oasis. Needless to say he succeeds in this quest.
The key to winning is his knowledge of the creator of the game, and all of the geeky things he loved, including music, movies, his partner’s girl. It is a worship of eighties trivia and images. The main character and the dead owner both hark back to that simpler time.
At one point, the creator objects when told that times change. He says, “What if you could go back, very fast, as fast as you could go.”
This is the point of the story. To glorify the myth of the eighties as a time of innocence. A time when a guy could hobble together something in his garage that would make him a trillionaire. Beautiful dream isn’t it?
But that’s just it. It’s just a dream. The eighties wasn’t really like that. The images shown in movies were what the eighties wanted itself to look like, a successful time, an ambitious time, a time of plenty. The references were meant to make us feel the lightness of that age, the cool songs, the disco dancing, the vintage games. A time when new tech was coming out every day. Not like today where a guy can’t catch a break because the odds are stacked against him. In the eighties, everyone had a chance to succeed.
Maybe it was living through the eighties that made this movie miss its mark for me, because despite the fact that I got a good deal of the references, and I had played many of the games mentioned, it didn’t seem like the movie was made for me at all.
So after I left the theater, I started to wonder who it was made for. Well, The main character was a white, male gamer. A man who worshiped another white, male gamer who had made it rich through his love of games. The movie seemed to be made for people like that. People who worshiped tech giants like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Who watched the Breakfast club and believed that schools were really like that. People who thought the eighties were a simpler time, where villains were bad, and friendship was good, and an average Joe could win a girl and save the world.
The movie tied up everything neatly with a little bow. The bad guy was defeated. The friends stayed together. The guy got the girl. And there was even a little moral about not spending all your time online. It was a happy story, with no mess. But I couldn’t help feeling that the “real world” of the show was so much falser than the world inside the game. A real world without industry or disability, or parents. A small world where American nostalgia is the only culture, English (and perhaps Japanese) the only languages, all history before 1982 erased.
Although the game spanned the world, everyone of note lived in the same town. And although one character was “surprisingly” a female of color, the main girl was in real life still female with only with a cute little deformity that our character could overlook showing how great he was for overlooking it. I didn’t believe that he would have felt the same if she had been fat, disabled or old.
But that’s not the point. The point is the gameplay. At one point in the story, the girl ( Art3mis) says that she is sure that he will win the game. This is where it started to lose me. The woman had every chance of winning the game. In fact, she seemed to have more experience than he did. Why did she expect him to win? It was like the girl in the Lego movie who always loses to the boring guy despite how awesome she is because the story is rigged that way. Only without the self-awareness. Art3mis didn’t expect to win because she would not have won in an eighties movie, and that was what this story was emulating. The age when the geeky, white dude always won. Her entire reason was to give our hero a task slightly nobler than his goal of getting rich, and to be there at the end to give him a kiss. She and all the others were simply NPCs masquerading as real people. His connections seemed superficial. Even his aunt got only one brief mention after she was gone.
It seemed that we weren’t expected to identify with those other characters. We were supposed to understand the main character (Wade), and his idol. Wade was the perfected version of the creator of the game. A person who could get past his insecurities, actually kiss the girl, and share his wealth with his friends. The Oasis would be secure in his hands. He was the true successor to the tech giant, not the suit who wanted things to change. Wade was the person who, through his devoted worship of the past, gained the keys to shape the future.
And yet, what kind of future can a man create if he can only see the past? Tech giants did not create new worlds by worshiping the past, but by seeing what the future could become. The writers of the story are selling a dream of the past made for people who’ve never been there. The past that they covet is not real. The images of eighties life in movies were not representative of real life at the time.
So what exactly are people looking for when they hark to a time that never was? They want the middle class American myth of the a time when a white man who worked hard was guaranteed success. When women gave up their ambition to help their man win. When the rules were stacked in their favor, and the world saw them as powerful.
When I look at eighties movies, I see a time when a black woman like me was largely invisible. At most, she was a cliché, a token character. Her past was unimportant, and her family nonexistent. Right now I can hear you saying, but they have a black female character and she’s important. But that is because this is a movie made in the twenty-first century. Things have changed.
And I like that things have become better for the people who I don’t see in this movie. People from the world that doesn’t exist beyond this mythical Ohio town. I like to live in a time when someone might at least think to throw in a black woman as a kind of joke, because people might not expect that. They would not have done so in the eighties.
In the eighties, there was the cold war, AIDS and cancer as incurable diseases, greed, envy, and how cool it was to not care about the poor. There was no internet, few electric cars, horrible pollution, threat of ending human life through nuclear war, and so many more things that we didn’t put in the movies meant to distract us. In truth, I like today better than I did the eighties. I don’t want to go back to that time, and it disturbs me to know how many people do.
So in conclusion, I thought Ready Player One was an okay movie, a popcorn movie. I smiled as I watched it, and I ate my popcorn, but the aftertaste was bitter.