Nostalgia has always informed the new, but never quite like this.
We may be hitting the nostalgia apex with Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, and it feels like something’s about to break.
by MATT STOKES | MARCH 22, 2018
Perhaps I’m exaggerating when I say that I think the worlds of pop culture and politics are about to converge for a final Battle of the Five Armies showdown upon next week’s release of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. I might spend a little too much time reading movie blogs and cultural critics, and maybe this film will come and go and make its $100 million at the domestic box office and be seen as a mild financial disappointment but a not-altogether-unpleasant afternoon at the movies. It is, crucially, coming probably a little too late, arriving after the whole phenomenon has been exhausted and everyone is ready to move on. But on the other hand, has any other single work represented the intersection of the nostalgia obsession that has pervaded movies, TV, music, books, and a political movement popular enough to win the White House than Spielberg’s film?
Again, I’m a little too immersed in this world, so I take it for granted that you have any idea what I’m talking about. Ready Player One is a 2011 book by Ernest Cline about a dystopian future in which the world has run out of resources, the Great Recession that began in 2008 has been going on for decades, and humanity now spends most of its time in the Oasis, a virtual universe where people play games, shop, go to school, and hang out. Cool idea! And one that has real resonance with the link between unemployment and video gaming. But the book is also the story of a quest to find an Easter Egg hidden within the Oasis by the virtual world’s creator, a tech billionaire obsessed with 1980s pop culture. Finding the Easter Egg means winning hundreds of billions of dollars, so the (real) world dives into the billionaire’s 1980s obsessions and has to become interested in all the things he’s interested in. Again, cool idea, but one that feels a little icky in the wake of Gamergate and a million other stories of white male nerds who resent having to share their turf with anyone who looks different.
The book mentions Steven Spielberg by name and refers many of his movies, and now the IRL Spielberg has adapted the book into a movie. It’s going to bring together, Roger Rabbit-style, intellectual properties far and wide, so you’ll finally get to see Frodo Baggins and Freddy Krueger in the same movie! There are many (adult) fans who desperately wants to see their favorite characters from different universes mingling together onscreen, though I have never been one of them and have never quite understood it. But I was talking to my seven-year-old about the movie Justice League, which she had just seen and insisted to me that Iron Man was in it. I explained to her that Iron Man couldn’t have been in it because Iron Man and the Justice League are owned by different companies. I then printed out several landmark Supreme Court rulings from Westlaw and we went over them very carefully together. She could wrap her head around this, but couldn’t quite understand then why she could see a million fan-made YouTube videos with characters from all kinds of different properties—Elsa and Anna meeting Agnes from Despicable Me, for example. There is something very elemental about wanting to see these different characters interacting with each other.
So I had to teach intellectual property law to the child, defining rights holders and the difference between authorized versions and fan fiction.
“You see, those videos on YouTube aren’t real,” I explained.
“But isn’t all of it not real?” she asked.
“Whoa, man.” Deep.
“Why couldn’t the people who made Iron Man and the people who made Justice League just make a deal, and then they could all be in the same movie?” she asked me. I explained that they could, but it was unlikely.I)Turns out she thought the Flash was Iron Man. But the Ready Player One movie is that, to a degree, because Spielberg was able to secure the rights to all kinds of different properties.
I do not have a problem with any of this. I’m not averse to nostalgia the way so many critics are, nor do I think a crossover can’t be anything more than a marketing gimmick. Nostalgia has always been a part of art because all of art is in conversation with its own history. George Lucas was pining to make Flash Gordon when he made Star Wars, and Flash Gordon was a loose adaptation of John Carter From Mars. In his introduction to ‘Salem’s Lot, Stephen King explained that he got the idea for his vampire novel by revisiting Dracula as an adult. “I wondered out loud to my wife what might have happened if Drac had appeared not in turn-of-the-century London but in the America of the 1970s.” And Dracula itself was an adaptation of old vampire legends imported into 1890s London. “What if a vampire was not some backwoods Eastern European creature but a noble baron in modern England?” Joseph Campbell famously said that there’s really only one story, one monomyth, and everything is but an adaptation—This, but with that.
But obviously something has changed in the past few years. In music, Bruno Mars is criticized as a cultural appropriator, someone who cultivates nostalgia for a certain type of (black) music and sells a sanitized, radio-friendly version of it to (largely white) audiences. Stranger Things was a crossover hit for Netflix, but it was met with plenty of criticism for its fixation on a certain kind of 1980s nostalgia. And the criticism of Ready Player One the novel and the preemptive backlash to the movie often comes in the form of railing against a type of work whose primary appeal is, “Hey, remember this thing you liked when you were younger?” (I say this as co-host of a podcast that does that very thing.) I think these tropes can work in service of a larger purpose and alongside other virtues such as characterization and story (Which is why I like Stranger Things.). It remains to be seen if that will be the case with the new Spielberg movie—I think the book is perfectly enjoyable, but totally forgettable.
The nostalgia wave extends beyond art, obviously, into politics with Brexit and “Make America Great Again.” MAGA is all about nostalgia for yesteryear when things were better—unless of course you’re the person for whom things are finally starting to improve but now half the country wants to turn the clock back.
I think Warner Bros was just looking at things they already owned the rights to, for this one.
I completely buy that this kind of nostalgia is poisonous. I also note that all of the culture for which Ernest Cline pines was created by white people, and that I did not notice this while reading the book, didn’t even think about it until I saw it pointed out. I’m part of the problem.
Warner Bros has a lot at stake in Ready Player One and has built an expensive marketing campaign around hitting white people in the feels. In the wake of Black Panther‘s historic success—success built around appealing to everyone, yes, but whose primary target audience is African American—it’ll be fascinating to see what Hollywood does if the Ready Player One gambit fails.
I'll quickly note that in Cline's vision of the 80s, there were no black people and they certainly weren't making culture.
— b-boy bouiebaisse (@jbouie) July 24, 2017
Art’s fixation on nostalgia seems otherwise a market-driven trend. Movie studios build their entire strategy around getting a handful of global hits, which means the movies have to lean on built-in brand familiarity. Book publishers often encourage authors to re-tool their books for a younger audience because YA books are where the money is. And more and more older TV shows—Will & Grace, Full House, Roseanne—are being resurrected because their audience misses them. A demand for nostalgia creates an increase in supply for nostalgia that feeds more demand for nostalgia.
But the bubble has to burst at some point, and I suspect it will happen with Ready Player One. So much is riding on the success of this film, but huge-budget properties trading on nostalgia have had a hard time breaking through in recent years—last year saw box office calamities in The Mummy, Justice League, Pirates of the Caribbean 5, and Transformers 5, and disappointments in Cars 3, Kong: Skull Island, War For the Planet of the Apes, Power Rangers, and Kingsman 2. Spielberg himself hasn’t had a blockbuster hit since 2008’s Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Since 1991’s Hook, Spielberg’s movies that try to recapture his ’70s and ’80s wonder and whimsy have largely been creative failures, while his movies aimed at adults have been some of his best.II)Jurassic Park is somewhere in between.
Plus, Ready Player One is part of the wave of young adult dystopian science fiction that has for the most part gone out of fashion. I don’t see the appetite for this movie. And if I’m right, and the movie earns a lackluster return at the box office, I think we’ll have our proof that this boomlet is over, and not even its architect can do anything about it.
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