There’s a wisp of faint but palpable hope lingering in the air that Steven Spielberg might be able to turn Ready Player One into something more than nostalgia-bait.
Nostalgia-bait is a term that refers to a piece of art’s reliance on references to pieces of decades past. Stranger Things bases its entire aesthetic around ’80s culture, evoking a longing for a simpler time. Everything Sucks uses ’90s pop culture as a way to spin a narrative about a period when teens actually hung out together. We’re obsessed with the ’80s and ’90s. We return to Friends on Netflix and bask in the entertainment of yesteryear, and Hollywood keeps making Rocky movies (albeit better ones).
Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One never managed to find its own story outside of reference points. The book, which follows protagonist Wade Watts as he tries to find a secret egg hidden deep within a virtual reality game that promises an extravagant fortune, was nothing more than a fetishization of classic bands, movies, TV shows, comics and games, transported to a dystopian future. The message that seemed to transcend everything else was the importance of pop culture in surviving even the most dismal of situations. Life didn’t need to be peachy so long as you could quote RoboCop or The Matrix and recall old games of Dungeons & Dragons.
Early reactions from the movie’s world premiere at South by Southwest seem to suggest that the film improves greatly on the book’s flaws. I haven’t seen it myself, but the initial discussion on social media also tackles the question of how much a film can rely on nostalgia without feeling manipulative. It’s a conversation that we’ve been having since the book was first released in 2011, and it’s of the utmost importance to understand why that’s the case.
To properly examine the nostalgia effect that Ready Player One capitalized on, let’s examine a very important year for pop culture: 2011. Mad Men, a 1960s period piece, was at the height of its popularity; The Muppets returned as a movie; and Beavis and Butt-Head made a special appearance on MTV. We were being sold entertainment that many of us had experienced before. Even those who were too young to remember original runs of the latter two series knew classic Beavis and Butt-Head jokes or Muppets songs thanks to YouTube. We couldn’t break free of the feedback loop.
There was already discourse in 2011 about whether nostalgia would kill creativity, about whether it’s easier to just look back rather than move forward. Those worries never quite came true. Studios and networks tried to figure out how to use nostalgia like steak seasoning: just enough to add the flavor but not enough to distract from the main meal. It worked some of the time; Mad Men built an interesting story around its nostalgic premise, and The Get Down used relics from decades ago to tell a riveting tale that didn’t rely on winking references. These stories took place in the past, but were able to speak directly to contemporary audiences through their performances and themes.
Ready Player One comprises 385 pages of random references that seem to keep repeating the idea that life used to be better — without ever proving why. Technology, like virtual reality in Ready Player One, allows us to surround ourselves with nothing but memories of fonder days. But Cline never questioned why he can’t move past that point in his life, and the book doesn’t explore why it seems to treat pop-culture artifacts from the past as untouchable canon.
Maybe it’s a simple case of longing for the carefree nature of childhood, one with little responsibility and the superhero ability that only kids can wield that allows them to obsess over pop culture free of guilt. That’s a universal feeling, and one that Cline could have explored at length. Instead he danced around any real conversation, substituting another pop culture reference for substance.
Cline didn’t write a remarkably insightful story about people’s connection to the pop culture staples of their childhood that helped to form their interests. He wrote an almanac of products that people should spend time checking out.
How this can be fixed, and why Spielberg is the director to do it
Steven Spielberg has the chance to correct Cline’s mistakes while still incorporating the fanboy elements that found Ready Player One an audience.
Ready Player One has the potential to be more than just a movie about a game with influences from ’80s films. Spielberg can use Ready Player One’s compelling setting to weave a tale about our addiction to technology; not the hardware per se, but the boundless worlds we can dedicate ourselves to. Spielberg can use nostalgia to spark a conversation about the communities that develop around pop culture. Spielberg can use Wade Watts to explore the toxicity that obsessive relationships with entertainment can breed in people who feel ownership over those products.
Of course, Spielberg is in a unique position to interrogate these themes because so much of his work informed modern-day nostalgia and longing. His body of work gave us so many pop culture staples while leaning hard into a childlike sense of wonder. There are few filmmakers who would be as adept at using the wallpaper of already beloved movies and games to tell a story that’s meaningful for audiences in the present day.
What Spielberg can’t do is assault audiences with reference after reference for no other reason than Back to the Future was a cool movie. We’ve been obsessed with nostalgia-driven entertainment for so long that we now know when we’re being played for fools. We know the tricks directors and writers use to entice us: the little Easter eggs that keep us guessing, and the post-credits scenes that we drool over. Ready Player One the book is often nothing but references. People have grown frustrated with Cline’s empty words as the book ages. There was no point to the references, just endless callbacks.
Nostalgia is a powerful force. We can think back to a book or movie that irrevocably changed our lives; we can still feel that striking pang of emotion whenever we conjure up the memory of first watching or reading something, of being gripped by its world. That bittersweet rush of emotion that surges through us when experience nostalgia over the pieces of art that helped us understand why something occurs or gave us hope in a dark moment — it’s miraculous.
That power shouldn’t be used as a manipulative tactic or safety net for mundane storytelling. Nostalgia isn’t just a built-in ad, regardless of how Warner Bros. might see Ready Player One as an easy-to-sell product because of its constant references. Ready Player One is a story about the power of escapism, with the potential to have an open discussion about our addictionlike reliance on other worlds to escape our own. It’s even truer now, living in a trying time, desperately clawing at any story that will provide a light at the end of the tunnel when it’s getting more difficult to find our own.
Art should leave us fulfilled, not scanning a list for other pieces of art to give us that feeling instead. And that’s what Spielberg has hopefully been able to bring to the story.
I have hope for Ready Player One despite every part of my brain telling me to prepare for the worst. I want Ready Player One to be the movie that gets nostalgia, that understands our connection to the sad feeling of not being able to experience the past in the present. I want Ready Player One to capture how I feel when I encounter my own passing nostalgia, yearning for a simpler time. I haven’t encountered a movie that’s been able to capture that feeling, but every ingredient Ready Player One needs to pull off the feat is sewn into its DNA.
It’s quite simple, really. Let us experience the fluidity, the obsession, the potential, the magic, the pain, and the depth of nostalgia; don’t just bait us.