‘Welcome to the Desert of the Virtually Real’ – Ready Player One and The Heavenly Hazards of Nostalgia

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For those of you that have now seen Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Ready Player One, you were no doubt attracted to it, and left your screening of it satisfied, due to one simple reason: its extensive references to films and games from your past, from Jurassic Park to The Shining, Adventure Quest and even obscure, fan-favourite gems like Krull. You’re not alone in your excitement either. I recently reviewed the film. While I was mixed on its overall quality, one area of praise was its clever use of classic iconography, such as the revived image of the DeLorean driving into battle. Also, judging by its domestic success, with returns of up to $41.8 million on its opening weekend (Boxofficemojo.com) – Spielberg’s biggest hit since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – there’s a huge audience that wants to indulge in Ready Player One’s nostalgic, blockbusting pleasures.

But I’m afraid that I’m going to have to be the hypocritical party pooper to this excitable parade. The boring, sombre writer behind the keyboard, who steps on his own two feet and informs you that Ready Player One might not be the necessary gem that many are acclaiming it as. In fact, as I’m about to argue, Ready Player One couldn’t have hit our screens at a worse time.

See, The United States of America is in a difficult place at the moment. The Trump Administration is in full swing, firing off FBI directors and White House administrators left right and centre, insulting countries both near (Mexico) and far (Nigeria). With the incidents in Charlottesville and Las Vegas, the volatility of the presidency has clearly engulfed the nation, unable to take that firm, brave liberal step that Obama’s election hinted at.

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Perhaps that’s a crude summary of contemporary America, particularly from a twenty-something Brit. But I think we can all agree that questions need to be asked. Art has certainly made some valuable steps towards this interrogation. American rapper Kendrick Lamar’s explosive, angry anthems speak against the racial prejudices of society. Director Kathryn Bigelow continues to dive into the shadows of modern America, shining a spotlight on all of its blemishes in films such as Detroit.

But then we get films like Ready Player One, tight, glossy entertainment packages that partake in the overwhelmingly guilty pleasure of nostalgic longing. It’s not an isolated incident either. Both Stranger Things and It embrace the Stephen King/80s aesthetics in full bloom. Pixels and Wreck-It Ralph dived deep into the videogame world, featuring characters ranging from Pac-Man to Sonic the Hedgehog and referencing properties such as Donkey Kong to Metal Gear.

But Ready Player One is easily the peak of this propulsive trend. With its entire blockbuster charm circulating around nostalgic references to films and games past, it is exactly what many audience members want, but certainly not what they need. To explain what I mean, I’d like to refer to psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Without going into too much detail, Lacan discusses what he terms as ‘the encounter with the real’, the reality of trauma that is disguised or hidden by the subject’s desires and fulfilment of pleasures. The significance of this seemingly unrelated point to Ready Player One comes in Lacan’s following statement:

How can the dream, the bearer of the subject’s desire, produce that which makes the trauma emerge repeatedly – if not its very face, at least the screen that shows us that it is still there behind?’

This dichotomy of dream vs reality is exactly the issue we are facing right now and Ready Player One takes this as its subject matter. Set in a world where reality is an existence that remains to be desired, the characters such as our protagonist Wade (Tye Sheridan) have a method of escape: The Oasis, a VR system that takes the subject and implants them into a dream world where anything is possible. You can be anyone, look like anything, meet your greatest gaming and movie heroes. It’s the perfect escapist façade, the dream, the world of desire that allows the subject to escape from the trauma of the real.

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In a way, it would seem that Ready Player One opens itself up to an interrogation of the very thing I’m accusing it of committing. With this layering of dream vs. reality, the film and its director, Steven Spielberg, try oh so very hard to remind us, rather bluntly, that the Oasis, whilst pleasurable, can never replace reality. Yet Spielberg is caught in a catch-22. For you see, as I said earlier, audience members didn’t come to be reminded of reality and its necessity. They came because the advertisement promised them the much-hyped return of the Iron Giant. Because they knew that somewhere within the film’s runtime, they would be reunited with the beautiful chassis, bonnet and body of Marty McFly’s DeLorean. Whatever the text of the film tells us is irrelevant really: we came, we stayed and we left satisfied because of what we saw in the dream world, rather than what we saw in the real world.

Ready Player One is a firm reminder, therefore, of the dangerous mental state that we find ourselves in: one of nostalgic blindness. Pleasure is absolutely essential, please do not accuse me of playing down any kind of entertainment (I’m hyped as hell for the new Stath flick The Meg for god’s sake). But Ready Player One is a particular brand of entertainment that comes with its own risks in our tumultuous climate. With so much hatred, war and poverty in our real world, there’s something quite ironic and analysable about the fact that, in response, we jump into the past, behind the blanket of what we knew from our childhoods. Crowds of fans leap onto their computers to fight against a female-led Ghostbusters remake. Director Rian Johnson was vehemently alleged to have ended the dreams of many with his sci-fi sequel Star Wars: The Last Jedi. People seem afraid to have that cushion of the pleasurable past stripped away from them, in fear of seeing what’s ‘behind’, to appropriate Lacan’s claim. The trauma of the real threatens to surface, the audience terrified to face the harsh facts of our volatile present.

Yeah, I know, it’s a bit of a downer that I am proposing. But I am not referring to entertainment in general when I speak of this issue. I am deducing that the current stream of nostalgic entertainment that is invading our television and cinema screens, is indicative of a societal complex that has taken hold and won’t let go. Without so much still needing to change, the cinema’s role in communicating this need is essential, one that requires it throw off its illustrious cape of historical goodness. We all need escapism from our day-to-day business. But escapism grounded in the present, that’s what we really needed: like a baby to a mother’s breast, our fixation with the past needs to be weaned off for us to develop independently. Our own Oasis goggles need to come off for us to start seeing the forest for the trees.

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