March 29th sees the release of Steven Spielberg’s latest movie: Ready Player One. It marks the long-awaited return of the blockbuster master to science fiction cinema, but also the triumph of 80s and 90s nostalgia as an economic force within the entertainment industry.
If you aren’t familiar with the book, Ready Player One takes the inclusion of pop culture reference points in media to a new extreme. Barely a paragraph slides by without multiple nods, winks and outright steals from other works of fiction, and it’s clear that Spielberg took this idea and ran as far as the copyright lawyers would let him. However, whilst nostalgia and parody might work well on TV or in small doses, cinema tickets aren’t cheap. The studio has taken a gamble that audiences are willing to shell out to see a movie that mainly works by reminding them of a slew of things they’ve paid to see before. Although I predict it will prove to be a safe bet, and the film will make massive piles of cash, I’d like to understand how we got to a point where something like this is considered a safe investment. Have we run out of new ideas? Is pop culture eating itself?
Outside the realm of comedy and kids’ movies this is the first time that a mega-budget has underwritten a film that is openly constructed from bits sourced from other, arguably better, films – not to mention countless books, comics and video games. The trailers alone have crammed in a dizzying number of references, even to Spielberg’s own films, which fits the central premise of the novel: unimaginable riches are hidden in a virtual world, a treasure only accessible to the person who can decode every last cultural reference included by the world’s programmer. The plot is more than a love letter to pop culture, it’s a way of imagining a world where it’s a matter of life and death if you can name all of The Goonies and the damsel from Donkey Kong. The central idea of a hero who is the only one to understand the rules of a secret parallel world is far from original – but to say it’s unoriginal misses the point. The film’s multimillion dollar pop quiz of cultural references is more than just something to divert adults watching Shrek, it’s a legitimate story in itself, because for many people it’s a strong part of their personal identity. We, the audience, are that hero. We get the references; we could save the world by knowing that Han shoots first and that Mogwai must never get wet.
The geeks will inherit the earth
The idea of intense pop culture literacy as a desirable personality trait is often associated with so-called geek or nerd culture, but if you look around you it’s obvious that nerd culture has conquered mainstream entertainment, with the possible exception of sports. Where once classical education relied on a knowledge of latin and Greek mythology, the modern equivalent is being able to pick up on allusions to Pokémon or Batman. Maybe it’s because so many nerds ended up producing entertainment themselves, but we live in a culture shaped by The Simpsons and its many imitators, by ironic internet memes, by Marvel movies and video games. Ready Player One is the purest example of a phenomenon that sees new entertainments endlessly recycling bits from the past, like samples in rap music or the deathless reanimation of 80s fashion every ten years. It’s as if we’ve come to accept that all the good stories have already been told. A key example is the pop culture juggernaut of the Star Wars franchise. After a weird detour via the critically-panned (albeit highly profitable) prequels, we are now at a stage where every second Star Wars film either makes reference to the destruction of the original Death Star, or just rehashes it in a new form. The cash returns from even rubbish films in the series would suggest that Disney could afford to take some risks, but aside from marginally more diverse casting it seems that audiences will only get to enjoy periodic updates of the original stories with shinier robots. Last year director Luc Besson released Valerian, a bonkers, hammy sci-fi spectacular that was consistently silly but also overflowing with great ideas. It should have been a natural fit for the same audiences that love Star Wars, but it bombed at the box office when cinemagoers decided they were less interested in Rihanna as a pole dancing space squid than the opportunity to view the Death Star explode from a slightly different angle. The popularity of reboots and rehashes does make me think it’s become easier to generate a pleasurable reaction in your audience by bringing up memories of things they’ve experienced before, which seems to be a very limiting way to entertain ourselves. Whilst all art refers to things that came before it, there’s a difference between a subtle tribute to another work and shameless pandering to our memories without generating anything new. Will we reach the point where new generations have experienced so much nostalgia for 80s and 90s culture that it stunts their ability to tell stories without referring to the things they’ve already seen? We might be trapped forever like Pac-Man, in an endless maze of Death Star explosions and Spiderman reboots, as the profit numbers multiply upwards for the Disney corporation and the cinema chains.
A never ending story?
In all likelihood we’ve been here before. If there is hope it lies with the teens. Although we’re currently dominated by the influence of 80s and 90s geek culture, this isn’t unexpected and it can’t last forever. Much like the influence of the 1960s generation over rock music and literature, the nostalgic influence of 80s and 90s culture is so strong because it’s inseparable from a series of seismic changes to the media landscape, and from the tastes of the influential people who helped create those changes. The cultural references driving our current world are embedded in a period when video games became a global phenomenon, when countless entertainment franchises established themselves, and when the internet first began to reshape human culture. When todays’ creators were young and cool, the technology for reproducing media first became affordable, and they were able to share their culture with new communities around the world. Geeks in the 80s and 90s were at the forefront of a revolution, so it’s no surprise that this party is still dancing to their record collections. However, I would argue that we’ll soon reach saturation point, and the trend-setting geeks will become tomorrow’s embarrassing dads. There will come a time when young people feel the same about the references spilling out of Ready Player One as I started to feel about people in my parents’ generation who never stopped banging on about Bob Dylan and The Beatles. I hope we can rely on these young people to come up with the weird ideas, with art that ignores the older generation, and to challenge us to develop interests in new things. Their ideas will upset the equilibrium, and will tell new stories that will shape the entertainment world for the next generations. Of course, within twenty or thirty years they’ll be as commonplace as exploding Death Stars are today. The next generation can reload, reboot – and the cycle will begin again.