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The Toxic Nostalgia of Ready Player One

Ready Player One, the new film directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the mega-selling sci-fi novel by Ernest Cline, is set in 2045, when most of the wretched, catastrophe-rocked globe is entranced by a massive online simulation called The Oasis. You enter this virtual reality via Google-glass-like specs, to assume an avatar’s alternate identity and engage in a life of adventure and conquest that is the stuff of dreams. Could be today.

The Oasis is the creation of one James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a kinda sorta Steve Jobs, and friend/creative partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg, or Steve Wozniak, take your pick). When the great, reclusive Halliday dies, he leaves behind Anorak's Quest: a game to find three keys that unlock a mystery at the heart of The Oasis and named for Halliday's own online identity: Anorak the magician. The first to discover that mystery, or Easter Egg, as these hidden treasures buried in games (and movies) are known, wins the entire thing: The Oasis and Halliday’s multibillion-dollar fortune. Basically, you will become the king of the universe, a god, like Halliday, among men.

Battling Gunters (short for “Egg hunters") around the world for the Egg is the evil corporation (is there ever any other kind?) Innovative Online Industries (IOI), which wants to own The Oasis, currently freely available to all, to monetize it. Boo! The hero of this tale is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an orphaned teen desperate to flee his pitiful life in The Stacks, a vertical trailer park, where he lives with a none-too-cuddly aunt and her physically abusive boyfriend. Wade, or rather his avatar Parzival, shares this adventure with friends Aech, Sho, Daito, and Art3mis, a kick-ass Lara Croft type, with whom he is smitten. Wade has never met the flesh-and-blood counterparts to these avatars. For all he knows, Ar3mis (pronounced as you would if the 3 were an e), as Aech expresses it, “is a 300-pound dude who lives in his momma's basement in suburban Detroit. And her name is Chuck.”

The film plays fast and loose with aspects of the book, and not necessarily for the better (although the novel has its own plot problems). The film seems in quite the rush to get to its climax: the final showdown between our gang of young Gunters and the money-hungry, power-mad IOI CEO Nolan Sorrento and his corporate drones, who 24/7 feed him clues to Halliday’s life to aid his quest for the Egg. Wade/Parzival and his team do finally meet in the flesh (a series of reveals more satisfyingly depicted in the book) and learn that working together gives them a better chance of winning than treating each other as rivals. While the film is visually stunning, a textured, multilayered live-action/motion-capture visionscape that represents the 71-year-old Spielberg, who contributed more than his fair share to the 80s pop culture that he's here celebrating, and frequent collaborator Janusz Kaminski at the height of their powers, the parts are greater than the cacophonous whole. There's only so much visual data one can take in at one time, data that often overwhelms the onion-skin-thin characters. I left the theater still reeling from the sound and fury of a tale signifying virtually nothing.

But the heart of this story isn’t the fetishizing of mass entertainment or the power of collaboration or technology’s tendency to blind to the horrors of reality, but nostalgia as a kind of religion. See, Cline makes it quite clear in the novel that Wade has come to believe that there is no God and that religion is expletive deleted, fit only for children and nice old ladies. The movie, however, forgoes Wade's thoughts on a deity, or religion as an alternative to the quasi-transcendent power of virtual reality. The only “escape” from the besetting sins of the present is a digital future than allows you to relive the past. Even for those of an age who could not possibly remember the 1980s, the era in which both book and movie are soaked, one can still access much of its accoutrement online, including the old video and arcade games that were then popular. In fact, if you want to win Anorak's Quest to own The Oasis, you had better be familiar with the 1980s, and those games, because therein lie the clues that will lead you to the discovery of the ultimate Easter Egg.

Halliday himself was a product of the ’80s, and spent quite a bit of energy re-creating it, in his own life and in various dimensions of The Oasis. And so in 2045, it’s the era of Fast Times at Ridgemont High that binds the global "community," much of which is now on Anorak's Quest. Music, movies, TV shows, clothing, hairstyles—it’s all ’80s all the time. The only figure never referenced, of course, is the man who loomed largest in that decade, at least as far as the U.S. was concerned: Ronald Reagan. For Cline and the filmmakers that would no doubt spoil it. That the ’80s were made for Reagan and Reagan for the 80s never seems to occur to them. The ’80s were, in a sense, the product of nostalgia, that lost 1950s that one grew up with in the 1970s: from American Graffiti to Happy Days to Grease and Sha Na. The ’70s escape into the ’50s prepared for a future leader who could wrap the USA in a patina of postwar, GE Theatre, past cultural glory.

But Ready Player One knows only the stuff of the ’80s, the consumables, the toys and images and cartoon heroes like Marty McFly—who must find a way back to the 1950s to make the 1980s what it is—a place where the 5’5” Michael J. Fox could be a megastar and a DeLorean could become Apollo’s chariot. This nostalgia for what is portrayed as a kind of “innocent” past despite War Games and its warnings about Mutually Assured Destruction enable the denizens of places like The Stacks to cope with a wrecked present—wrecked, presumably, by the politics of the Boomers for whom the ’50s were beginning to define what would become the Moon-walking, Cold War–winning American century.

What may strike some as odd is that Halliday hated his ’80s childhood. It was filled with emotional violence and neglect. So why would he want to reproduce its trappings…so he could remember it? One of the functions of nostalgia is to be very selective. It keeps the good stuff and buries the bad—or buries the bad in a pit of hope that the worst is not yet to come. Hope consoles. But, if the future is now, and it ain’t that hot, if life didn’t exactly work out as planned, well, the past may be a way to relive those feelings of hopeful anticipation. Even the Cold War wasn’t that bad, because we know in retrospect that the nuclear confrontation never happened. So be glad for MADD!  

Nostalgia has also been described as an antidote for isolation, for loneliness: and what is more isolating than our lives lived onscreen, in a non-real reality, where we pay more attention to our phones than we do even to oncoming traffic. That the cure for the self-imposed isolation of the digital age is a fake world of digitized selves is too precious to be believed.

Yet here we are.

But how long before nostalgia itself is assaulted by social justice warriors, proscribed, anathematized as the stuff of white supremacist dreams? How long before movies that are as awash in the past as is Ready Player One, with its straight white male heroes, are crippled by Woke folk who see this as some atavistic plot to relive a time before “diversity” was all that mattered? How long before the music of Hall and Oates, whose “You Make My Dreams Come True” plays over the film’s closing credits, is denounced as a racist, sexist dog whistle?

Take for example the films of John Hughes—specifically The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—which are essential referents in the quest to advance in Anorak's Quest. Recently, Molly Ringwald, a Hughes star, took to the pages of the New Yorker to discuss how troubling and unenlightened those films were. Like Confederate statues, the silly romantic comedies of troubled dorky teens will soon come tumbling down in the iconoclastic fury that will suffer no unjaundiced memories of a time when the longings of the POC (Perpetually Outraged Classes) weren’t of uppermost societal concern.

In short, how long before nostalgia is remembered as the mental disorder it was. In the seventeenth century, it was deemed

an affliction of those who had left their home, and which struck them as they remembered fond memories and, in some cases, were crippled by the sense of longing that the memories brought. … Acute symptoms were often caused when the afflicted individual was exposed to some sort of trigger that reminded them of home, like a song, a smell, or a certain food. … It was also said to be made worse by foreign lands and customs and was particularly evident in emigrants and students studying abroad.

Made worse by foreign lands and customs…

How can the past be home to anyone, when there was so much injustice and misogyny and racism, when aggressions were macro and hate speech was the lingua franca of even the hated? What monsters could long for such a time? But we know the answer to that, don’t we? Monsters like James Halliday and Ogden Morrow, whose privilege (or genius, depending on who’s telling the story) enabled them to build kingdoms in which they could lord it over the oppressed.

As Ready Player One comes to a close, it goes all Willy Wonka, as the winner must prove not only clever, but good. In this case, however, good is not defined as honest, as in the Gene Wilder film, but inclusive. After all, Wade/Parzival and his friends represent a diverse bunch (although not as diverse as depicted in the book). Perhaps that's why this film will be given a pass for its love of the past and its white male leader—it proved able to see past it. It is here that we are also given a hint of life after life: the question remaining its nature. Real? Virtual? Other?

Christians must no doubt giggle at the “cultural appropriation” of the whole Easter Egg concept—those hidden references to past, or pointers to future, pop-culture landmarks—as used in Ready Player One and other forms of entertainment. (Estimates as to the number of such gems in the Spielberg film range from 120 to 138.) From whence did the idea come? Well, one story, recited in the film itself, has it that, back in the bad ole/good ole days of the ’80s, videogame techies were guns for hire who received no credit and little compensation for their work. So one such programmer, Warren Robinett, decided to bury his name deep inside Atari’s Adventure. Only the cleverest gamer would find it.

There's another origin story, of course, that has its own appeal: buried in the bowels of the creation is an Easter surprise that bears the creator’s name, promising a home for which many feel a nostalgic longing despite never having seen it. The question remaining for those of us stuck in 2018 is whether that home is this-worldly, ruled by Guardians of Ideological Purity and Social Media Oligarchs, or something Other.

But that’s another movie altogether.


Anthony Sacramone is managing editor for ISI Books and Modern Age journal. Follow him on twitter: @amsacramone.


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