Ready Player One: Back, just not to the future

April 17, 2018 16:57
Director Steven Spielberg signs autographs at the premiere of ‘Ready Player One’ in Los Angeles on March 26. Photo: Reuters

Ready Player One, the latest Steven Spielberg epic to roll off the production line, promised to offer a vision of an immersive reality enabled future, but instead gazes with longing nostalgia to the 70s, 80s and 90s culture.

Set in the year 2045, where people have decided that it's more fun to hang out in the virtual reality enabled universe of the OASIS than real life, Ready Player One provides a visual feast, amusing references, and rollercoaster ride for the audience that looks like the future, but doesn't act like it.

Our main characters set on a quest to find three keys to rule the OASIS, in a challenge created by its deceased creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who adopts a Tony Hawk look morphing into Gandalf at times. That's the point of the OASIS, you can be who you want to be – except somehow everyone wants to be stuck in the past.

Indeed, Ready Player One sets its cultural compass to 1995, with references to everything from Gundam, to Akira, Atari, Chucky, Street Fighter, and Jurassic Park, liberally splattered with product placement. In 2045 dystopian living, Pizza Hut arrives on your little industrial metal shanty town shack via drone (glad I won't go hungry… phew), and clubs play the Bee Gees and New Order – classic groups, but I was hoping for some new tunes in 2045.

It reflects the current obsession with 70s to 90s culture (Spice Girls! ABBA! Knight Rider! Friends!), which might stem from the fact that the post Cold War and pre-911 world appeared far more optimistic than today's techno-dystopia with Syria and Facebook as the battlegrounds for our souls.

It's apt that our hero in 2045 Wade (offline)/ Parzival (in the OASIS) drives a DeLorean, because 2018 feels a lot like a montage of the hellish alternative universe in Back to the Future Part II. No wonder the nineties seem so appealing for kids nowadays, even as storytelling should always move on. Despite being under siege from Netflix, and unfavorably compared to today's rich international cinematic scene, Hollywood hasn't got the memo, perhaps it's just too obsessed navel gazing over #metoo and white privilege in its unique cringe-worthy way.

True to form, the movie serves up old-school filmmaking clichés such as constant (grating) film music; panning to main characters' pouting faces at every chance, and attentive crowds for big speeches. I felt like it was 1997 eating Starburst, Green Day CD in hand, wearing Stussy and watching the Fifth Element, except the Luc Besson classic feels way more original.

And there is the gripe: for all the bells and whistles, Ready Player One is derivative and not particularly innovative. It owes much to Asian culture and duly throws in some references, but the characterization of Philip Zhao (Sho) and Win Morisaki (Daito) is in the grand Hollywood tradition of one dimensional, something that the world is not in 2018.

Trump and Brexit may appear to be harbingers of new-medievalism, but the reality is accelerated globalization has brought nuance, and third culture is becoming dominant, a great thing when looking at the 20th century history of violence. We often forget how good we have it (if you are reading this, you have probably escaped extreme poverty and are one of more than 50 percent people that have internet access and Deliveroo, woo hoo!). Connectivity and technology are booming, the discourse on rights is evolving positively, internationalization is accelerating, and a trend is emerging towards decrease in violence and war.

Virtual, augmented and immersive realities are booming in every sense and are changing b2b and b2c landscapes. In many senses, these burgeoning technologies have world-changing potential given integration with data, analytics and gaming. So why hark back to the past instead of building something new? In an obvious sense, because it's just damn good fun to be nostalgic. Maybe it's that in the words of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”? Whatever the reason, Ready Player One just ain't ready for the future.

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EJI contributor