If you met the main character from Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One in real life, you wouldn’t like him very much.
If you ripped Wade Watts from the dystopian world of 2044 and dropped him in our modern times, he probably would have been a Gamergater.
Had he been alive in 2016, he would have been creating YouTube videos to tell you how bad the idea of an all-female Ghostbusters remake is while taking a strange pleasure in the film’s mediocre box office returns.
Were he here right now, he’d be the one complaining to you that The Force Awakens was too much like the original Star Wars trilogy and The Last Jedi is too different.
None of this is laid out in the book, of course. Watts is our protagonist and is presented, in theory, as someone with a good heart who is trying to do the right thing. Dig into the subtexts, however, and it’s not hard at all to draw a line between this pop culture-obsessive who values arcane knowledge about 80s TV shows and video games over actual human connections and the obsessive geeks of today who put the appreciation of their own nostalgia above everything else.
Watts only ever finds a connection with other people when they prove to him that they share his compulsive need to catalog pop culture references (or vice versa). While the book has slight moments that attempt to steer towards a conclusion that there’s more to life than memorizing every episode of Family Ties, it never really breaks from the notion that your nostalgic obsessions are very important and the key to being able to catalog and grade others on their worthiness.
It doesn’t help that the author sees the world through the lens of his pop culture-addled youth. Most people of color are presented as narrow stereotypes, female characters merely exist in service to the male leads, and the book reads like it’s coming from the mind of what a 30-year-old man assumes an 18-year-old thinks like using the descriptive prowess of a 13-year-old (the fine folks at 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back showcase this far better than I ever could).
He goes out of his way to try to tell us he likes his female counterpart because of who she is inside but also spends an inordinate amount of energy attempting to confirm that she is, in fact, female. The unsaid implication is that, if she is actually not female, then all of this good-guy posturing is revealed as nonsense. Even then, she’s only attractive because of her equally all-consuming knowledge of “the things male nerds love,” which make her acceptable.
From comic books to sci-fi movies to video games, we’re taught over and over that while these forms of entertainment can give us pleasure, becoming obsessive to the point where you see everything else as an affront to the things you love, the things that represent you, is harmful. Despite the fact that so many of these properties are about finding connection and coming together to solve common problems, the fallout almost always gives way to sexism, misogyny, and misguided hatred.
this is "ready player one"
if you haven't read the book please don't let the trailer make you think it might be ok pic.twitter.com/X2BpfNrpgW
— etdp (@etdragonpunch) December 10, 2017
That’s what pop culture obsession does. It builds a wall and tells people that if you want to be acceptable, you have to be on this side of the wall where we know every reference and defend these properties to the death. Otherwise, “you just don’t get it.”
It’s what creates such a rabid backlash when an all-female reboot of Ghostbusters threatened the “sanctity” of the original. If we’re all being honest with one another, the original film is a fun flick but isn’t, you know, a work of art. Truthfully, it’s probably been overrated as the years have gone on (and I say that as someone who grew up watching the film often). And yet, this well-remembered 80s movie fueled the kind of disgust and vile behavior usually reserved for heated political campaigns. For what?
We find ourselves in the midst of a strange pop culture time period. The nerds won, or so we’re told, and now the industry is dominated by comic book movies, epic cinematic universes, and crossover intellectual properties that require “true fans” to devour content across multiple platforms to be able to appreciate everything going on. A little over two years ago I wrote about saving modern pop culture from itself and the trends have only gotten worse. That was before the Ghostbusters remake backlash and before all the recent whining about The Last Jedi. Still, many of the points remain the same.
Star Trek Into Darkness exists solely to say “Hey, remember this?!?” In the end, that’s all it has to say. It doesn’t do much with its highly-anticipated villain. It briefly reintroduces Klingons just for the sake of showing you Klingons. They deus ex machina the hell out of the emotional ending of the story, making the entire impact moot. It was more important to show you the reference so you could nod in acknowledgement than it was to try and tell a compelling story.
Successful as they are, the Marvel movies are overflowing with references and nods and codes. That’s all well and good for now, but the more that universe grows, the less people will have all of the information. And the more you inundate them with references to things they don’t care about, the less they’ll care about the story you’re telling now.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t include easter eggs and stingers in your pop culture. My point is to say that the story you are telling right here and now is the most important thing. Focus on that. Focus on making this the kind of film or show that people still want to watch 30 years from now rather than trying to remind people about something that happened 30 years ago.
Of course, I’m also wrong about that. Because, well, check the receipts. The Marvel movies have never been more popular and Infinity War is probably about to break all the records once again. This need to create an insular pop culture environment isn’t turning people off, perhaps in large part because Marvel has the smarts to make their movies accessible while also giving the hardcore geeks enough references so they can get their rocks off.
But we’ve passed a point when simply appreciating the things you love isn’t good enough anymore. Now, you have to defend it to an unhealthy degree because your nostalgia for the pop culture you grew up with has become a character trait. You tell me your three favorite movies and I tell you who you really are. At least in theory. Except, that’s not how it works.
When I was a young man in my early 20s trying to figure out who I was, telling people Waiting for Guffman is my favorite movie was a shorthand way of explaining. It was and still is my favorite movie of all-time. Over the years I’ve shown it to many people in the hopes of them liking it as well. Some of them have told me they didn’t like it that much. Others have told me they like it, but they like Best in Show, Christopher Guest’s follow-up film, better. Every once in a while, I’ll find someone else who loves Guffman the way I do. When I was younger, those reactions mattered a great deal to me. They gave me a sense of who other people were and whether or not I could connect to them.
In the years since then, I’ve learned that’s a load of bullshit. Your movie preferences have no bearing on the kind of person you are. I know people who, to me, have the worst taste in cinema known to man, but who are kind and decent human beings who I am glad to know. The idea that I would think less of them because they don’t share my memories or nostalgic connections is absurd. It’s also pretty sad to know there are so many people out there who actually take that into consideration.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t appreciate all of these forms of entertainment. You should — that’s why they’re called entertainment. But like everything else in life, from sports to food to drugs, your enjoyment can easily tip over into something much darker as soon as you put too much meaning into these items that exist outside of you.
I don’t know how much Steven Speilberg’s adaptation of Ready Player One will keep or stray from the source material. Given his propensity to wrap his films in nostalgic tingles, I imagine there will still be a lot of that on the screen. My hope, at least, is that the film doesn’t come to the same conclusion that the book does. That it is able to find a way to inform its characters, and the audience, that living your life trapped inside a room consuming movies, TV shows, video games, and comic books all day is a terrible way to go through life. And that the more obsessive you become, the less connected you become from actual people as you surround yourself more and more with others who “value” the same nostalgia you do.
Unlike in Ready Player One, there is never going to be a time later in life when any of these compulsions will serve you well. There is no meaningful contest that your infinite knowledge of Dig Dug and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off will help you win. In the end, you’ll just be left with all your references and the anger you developed because no one else cared quite as deeply as you did about a TV show that went off the air 35 years ago.
Of course, maybe the film will dive headfirst into that idea. That your pop culture obsessions are what make you great and make you special. Looking at box office receipts and video game profits, companies aren’t exactly going broke convincing you of this.