Ready Player One: The Tale of Our Time

Well well folks, the Doctor is in! Doctor Weinstein that is.

Today I’ve decided to tackle what some believe to be ‘low culture’, and I do not do so lightly. While my considerable critical prowess is generally reserved for dredging insight from the depths of socio-political discourse, I can no longer allow myself to languish in the kind of Ivory Tower intellectualism that has withered the common man’s faith in modern Academia.

This weekend I viewed the latest offering from auteur Christopher “Chris” Nolan, and while a review of Dunkirk itself is not the purpose of this article, I cannot begrudge my fans the opportunity to slake their lust for my insightful observations.

I was unimpressed.

Certainly Dunkirk looks very good for a Hollywood blockbuster, although it was sophmoric when compared to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive or J.J. Abrams Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, lacking both their visual style and earnestness. Furthermore, it forewent the use of evocative biblical imagery as seen in Snyder’s severely underrated Batman Vs. Superman or Hideaki Gainax’s Japanese anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. Despite the problematic history of organised Western religion, the appropriation of its imagery acts as a way of encapsulating for future, more Atheist, civilisations the true extent of our subliminal indoctrination. In point of fact I detected no blatant homage anywhere in Dunkirk, which had the unfortunate effect of grounding the narrative visually and philosophically in the visceral moment. One came to feel, watching Dunkirk, that the entire world lay between that titular coast and Weymouth Harbour. The sombre and steady shots perpetuated a sense of inescapability, an oppressive endlessness of surf & sea that mirrored the torturous sun & sand of David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia.

But times have changed since 1962, so too has technology. No longer can directors simply capture real landscapes while also capturing audience’s hearts and minds. The (post-)modern audience demands, nay, deserves more! Even when the camera is inside a sinking ship, or tracking an aerial battle, that now familiar and much loved violent jittery motion known as shaky-cam is barely present. Even a novice film-maker cannot ignore innovation. With Nolan eschewing shaky-cam and 3-D, not to mention CGI, for his latest film one begins to sense that his choices are the result of malice for audience rather than ignorance of craft.

Praise has been lavished upon the sound design, both AFX and music, but as usual I am not so easily swept up in blind admiration (though the same cannot be said for the masses). For one thing the film was unnecessarily loud: I could barely hear the critical cogs whirring within my own cranium, in-depth thematic analysis was rendered nearly impossible as I was constantly at risk of losing my train of thought thanks to some overly-visceral gunshot or heaven-rending Stuka dive. The uninitiated may believe that “tension” makes a film “better”, but the true Cinemauteur (a term I coined) knows that tension is merely a parlour trick, gunfire & explosions are impressive to children & fans of Michael Bay only. Imagine a war film with no reference to war in it whatsoever, now that would be real tension: the audience would be forever wondering when the movie they thought they were going to see starts, yet it never does!

Hans Zimmer’s best work? An absurd position to take, most of the time you can’t even tell it is Zimmer. Where are the trademark bass horns? In fact, throughout the experience I was constantly unsure as to whether I was hearing his rumbling score or the sound of approaching aircraft and distant artillery. Some choices were downright nonsensical: why so much ticking? The movie is about boats, not clocks.

My greatest criticism, aside from the frankly disturbing lack of diversity, is the lack of characterisation. There is virtually no exposition, no backstory, barely any dialogue to speak of at all. How are we supposed to know who is on the right side of history? Where are the villains? Dunkirk is both a lesser war movie and lesser moral parable than Wonder Woman.

But this blog is not about Dunkirk, well, not just about Dunkirk. While I was waiting for the main feature to start a trailer began, and from the first line I was instantly hooked:

“I wish I’d grown up in the 1980’s, like all my heroes”

Ready Player One, as I came to learn upon devouring it on the train back from London, is more than simply a rousing testament to the cultural vitality provided by Postmodernism: It is a stirring love-letter to the Millenial Spirit. It follows the story of a young 40-something called Ernest Cline as he uses his considerable skill and knowledge regarding mainstream culture from half a century ago to recreate the character arc of Charlie Bucket from Charlie & The Chocolate Factory.  However, rather than ownership of a sweet manufactury in some hellish neo-Dickensian version of late 20th century England, the protagonist of Ready Player One seeks to become CEO of a simulated reality monopoly founded by a man with severe autism.

What makes the book so impressive, elevating it from pulp to literature, is the awe-inspiring pastiche of 1980’s mass-media aimed at children and young adults. Nary a paragraph goes by without a direct reference to, or substitution of description with, some reference to a video game or film from the dying decades of the millenium. Certainly, the author does not shy away from including homages to cultural artifacts from as early as the 1960’s and as late as the 2000’s, but the point isn’t strictly to further impress upon the reader the significance of the modern Renaissance known as the Reagan era. Rather it is to encapsulate the perspective of the socially retarded individual whose only recourse from an unending sense of alienation is to psychologically anchor themselves in a period of their life when it wasn’t humiliating to obsess over elongated toy commercials, like cartoons and comics. A time free from social shaming, when the world was simpler because the television only had four channels and it was easier to sweep structural paedophilia under the rug. Ready Player One is surging with heartfelt yet bittersweet social commentary.

So why compare these starkly unrelated examples? Surely Dunkirk, a flick about white men running away from things and Ready Player One, a novel portraying the responsibilities implicit in the human condition, could not be held to the same standards by any reasonable person? Yet, they are both about young people facing down the Leviathan of their time, whether it be indulging in somebody else’s nostalgia as human civilisation crumbles around you or the Wehrmacht. Both contain soundtracks strongly related to the thematic current of the narrative, whether it be an original score by Hanz Zimmer or a cool song by Rush. Both, it has been argued, contain valuable moral lessons for the disillusioned youth of today, but which truly presents a positive paradigm? The answer, to anybody with the intellect to see it, is clear.

What is Dunkirk other than a celebration of that most toxic form of masculinity, War? That was a rhetorical question of course. Some have tried to argue that it should be viewed as a tribute to unimaginable self-sacrifice and bravery; An attempt to recognise in some way the enormous burden that war places upon all of its victims, while maintaining a refusal to play in to cheap sentimentalism or moral grandstanding regarding the wider ideological battle taking place. These people are, obviously, wrong. Dunkirk truly contains nothing of philosophical value: it doesn’t even get close to passing the Bechdel Test, all of the characters are cis white males, there is no attempt to qualify the hypocrisy of an inherently oppressive British empire claiming to fight for freedom, not a single mention of the Holocaust, Dresden, Nagasaki, Hiroshima or Nanking. It may well be the least intersectionally conscious blockbuster since Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Now consider Ready Player One: the author has no problem stating the few things that even the ardent Postmodernist must accept as truth, or at least the closest thing to it: There is no God, anyone who does believe in a God is either lying to you or a coward who cannot accept the inescapability of oblivion. Global warming is the greatest threat mankind has ever wrought upon itself and the digitally woke youth are the only ones with the knowledge and tenacity to wrest the future of humanity from Boomer WASP capitalist fascists. It speaks truth to power, unlike Dunkirk where hardly anybody speaks at all.

Furthermore, Dunkirk takes place in the ’30’s or the ’40’s, before the civil rights movement in America, yet never once is there any dialogue detailing the problematic nature of allying with such a nation. Ready Player One is a world wherein there exists no cultural heritage outside of that which could be watched on television or purchased for 25 cents between the years 1980 and 2007. This was a period wherein the perception shifting academic revolutions of the 1960’s had taken root in American intellectual life, before the cataclysmic election of President Donald Trump was even a conscious possibility. The absolute peak of Western civilisation.

Now to my final point, the nail in Dunkirk’s metaphorical coffin and the recognition of Ready Player One’s strong Postmodernist principles. The former showed us the ugliness of the world as it is, whereas the latter presents to any willing to seize it a vision of the world as it should be:

The OASIS is a virtual reality wherein every conceivable combination of things that were cool when the author was young can exist: you can fly an X-wing, a Y-wing, the ship from Firefly, an A-wing, the Millenium Falcon, Star Trek ships, other ships from Star Wars or a DeLorean! The only limit is your imagination if all you can imagine is stuff they probably sell in Forbidden Planet.

Everything is referential, to the point where literally no pop-culture exists after the first few years of the millenium that isn’t in some way an uncritical glorifcation of intellectual property created in post-Vietnam America, or Monty Python. All traditional structures have been obliterated, leading to people forging identity groups based on things that matter, like ’80s nostalgia and geek culture.

There is no religion too, not in anybody that isn’t a smackhead or lonely old cat lady. In Ready Player One, an entire generation of children eschew education and real human contact in order to spend near to every waking hour examining a several thousand page mission statement written by a dead recluse who believed that anybody willing to spend years playing arcade games and watching movies dozens of times is prime material for most powerful private citizen on the planet.

There is no fixed gender or race in the OASIS, and while this makes relationships frought with uncertainty and distrust it also allows people to truly express their inner selves. Or pretend to be white so that nobody berates them for being a gay POC, but even Utopia can’t be perfect straight away.

The petrodollar has been replaced with a Labour Value currency that can be earned via back-breaking identured servitude or by killing Goblins in a simulated Dungeons & Dragons, forging a society where all skills are equally rewarded no matter their perceived “worthlessness”.

Dunkirk is a farewell to a world that can never exist again, while Ready Player One is a glimpse of what humanity has practically already become, and this humble blogger happens to think that is a future worth using social media activism to fight for.

This is the good doctor, signing off.

 

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