Full Of Pop-Culture References, Signifying Nothing

According to Goodreads, I read Ready Player One back in 2012 in a two-day affair which, by my current standards, is incredibly good. Once upon a time, I could read a book in 2-3 days regardless of length, something that stood very well for me doing my degree in English Literature. Now, it’s more like weeks rather than days (but it is getting better.)

Please note: time is the only think I can say about Ready Player One that is “incredibly good “; the book was not that. Far, far from it, actually.

As a book that focuses on pop-culture references, Ready Player One  was suggested to me as a delight to read, one that would be easy to get through and get me back in the right mood and headspace to read again.

At least some part of that was true: I forced myself to get through it in a matter of days so I wouldn’t have to deal with it any longer.

A breathless look at 80s and 90s pop-culture, you’re probably aware of the plot by now with the movie release hitting cinemas this weekend. Set in the 2040s, the OASIS is a form of escapism for humanity: we’re basically talking the internet by way of 3D interactivity, not just as a place for shopping, but also education, romance, escapism.

You know, the kinds of things we’re maybe using the internet for nowadays anyway…

After the death of James Halliday, creator of the OASIS, a message sent to all users suggests that Halliday’s wealth will be inherited by any users who can find and beat various tests hidden in the OASIS, and so humanity starts the search to find that wealth (because, y’know, the world has gone to shit and nobody has any money.) The story follows Wade Watts (user-name of Parzival) as he starts on this quest, discovering various pop-culture-related easter-eggs in the OASIS placed by Halliday in a quest to prove that his successor is worthy.

If that sounds a little bit like Charlie And The Chocolate Factorythen you’re on the right path: that’s exactly what it sounds like, albeit as a needless and uninspired re-make in an attempt to add some modern touches.

If that description sounds bitter, then you’re reading  correctly: I found my read of Ready Player One completely missing in heart, soul and meaning, a bookt that was more interested in including pop-culture references than any sense of world or character-building.

Once upon a time, an English teacher introduced our class to the ideas of narrative unity, Aristotle suggesting that all narratives require a unity of action, time and place: they’re sort of the rules of storytelling, though they change in meaning and relevance as you move between different genres and narratives. But those rules are the origin of the different genres themselves: playing with place and time give rise to science fiction and fantasy, playing with action (in terms of what you’re doing and how and why) allows character studies and so forth.

But everything remains standardised at some basic level: messing with those rules too much will make a story fall apart, meaning absolutely nothing.

So what I’m hinting at here is that Ready Player One goes out of its way to break those rules. Rules are, of course, there to be broken, but in the world of storytelling, that’s only if they’re understood, respected in one way, acknowledged in another and ultimately challenged.

So, you know, you gotta do some really fucking hard work if you want to pull that off.

That’s not what comes across in Ready Player One, a story of “and then this happened” wherein any descriptions have to have multiple pop-culture references and have to be over-explained while doing so. Ladies and gents, in the OASIS, it is not just enough to have a digital version of the DeLorean from Back To The Future, but it also has to be fit out with the AI of KITT from KnightRider.

And you must remind readers of that. Every. Five. Pages.

This element of breathless nerdy world-combining is so over-used that I can’t remember if this was actually in the book, but it’s the type of meaningless shite that makes anyone and everyone think they can tell or understand stories and story-telling with no real understanding at all. It’s pop-culture, and everyone fucking loves pop-culture: but for pop-culture to last, it needs to have some sort of meaning. And that meaning requires an emotional connection.

My memory of reading Ready Player One is that there was no emotion whatsoever in the book: it made for a very easy and forgettable read, but one that ultimately made me think I had wasted my time entirely in doing so. There were no characters or relationships in which I could invest; there was no threat to reality or life itself; the OASIS might signify the internet, a source of knowledge and art and social-interaction, but the book spends so much time focussing on these elements that it forgets that these can exist in the real world as well.

With all of this in mind, I wasn’t exactly excited to see a movie adaptation of the book: sure, it would have interesting visuals, but would it have any heart or meaning?

And if it somehow found either, would it still be the same story?

The fact that the Ready Player One movie is directed by Steven Spielberg held some promise: Spielberg understands heart and emotion, especially when combined with dumb nerdy pop-culture. Heck, Spielberg has been part of the creation of some of that pop-culture.

But is there enough heart in this book that even Spielberg can fix it for the big screen?

Having watched it, I’m of the no-doubt unpopular opinion that no, there isn’t. But oh boy, does Spielberg try to fix it.

My main issue with Ready Player One is that the book has no real danger: the focus on life in the OASIS means there is no real threat outside of it, and while lives are threatened by the villains of the book, there is no real reason to care for characters who are so full of naivete and ego that they move between merely annoying and absolutely unlikeable.

Spielberg’s film adaptation does its best to detract from this: the pop-culture references remain visually focussed and don’t need to be overly-explained to the viewer, giving time and space to give a tiny bit of character growth, although most of that comes through body language and facial expression. But the beats of this film remain problematic: the handful of characters killed in this film are not mourned, nor is there any true sense of anger or revenge, while the attempts at romance have no challenges.

Spielberg does his best to sort out these issues which are far easier to fix when you have more than just words to do so. But at its heart, the source content is too focussed on the element of fan-boying pop-culture that there is no heart or soul to this story. Spielberg does his best to create one, but it’s a heart that’s ultimately fake and meaningless when surrounded by so much other forced attention. In many ways, the movie Ready Player One tries to do something similar to The Lego Movie but forgets one massive point: that movie had heart.


Also published on Medium.