Even as Nostalgia Bait, 'Ready Player One' Fails to Actually Be Nostalgic

ready player one iron giant
Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures

There’s no shortage of people ready to deploy "Thermian arguments" -- a logical fallacy arguing that any piece of media is beyond criticism as long as it makes logical sense within its own universe -- to explain the perfectly plausible, in-universe inclusion of the Iron Giant committing atrocities in Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Ready Player One. The novel, written by Ernest Cline, mentions the iconic, animated being in passing. The common argument for his movie appearance is that this isn't the real Iron Giant (though a curious number of Ready Player One devotees have explained to me why this also makes sense for in-universe real Iron Giant).

This line of thinking ignores that none of the logical explanations matter. This isn’t about the laws of the lush and textured universe of Ready Player One -- full of recognizable pop culture references (provided, of course, they took place before 2018) -- and whether they mesh with themselves. Instead, it's about how we -- in the real real world -- relate to media. Using the Iron Giant for evil sparked plenty of controversy; it was the rare children’s movie with a point of view and a message, a thoughtful, emotional tale about an autonomous weapon from space consciously choosing not to do the violence he was programmed to do. The Iron Giant is in Ready Player One not because this character, or even what the character represents, makes thematic or logical sense in the narrative, but because Warner Bros., the studio behind the adaptation, owns the rights to The Iron Giant. By its inclusion, Ready Player One takes a character from a pointed pacifist movie and scrubs it of all what made it unique and meaningful. The movie doesn't understand what it means to turn the Iron Giant into a weapon, and worse, neither do the characters. There's no actual nostalgia in this nostalgic epic.

Ready Player One tells the story of Wade Watts, a video game aficionado and '80s pop culture enthusiast running around in the 2044 video-game-scape of the reference-rich OASIS, who sets forth on a virtual "Easter egg hunt" put in motion by Halliday, the platform's recently deceased creator. The winner will inherit not only billions of dollars, but the OASIS itself. Since the book's publication in 2011, the constant pop culture references have been a selling point.

At no point in the novel does Wade explain why movies and video games matter to him, what emotional chords they strike, or what pop culture artifacts make him feel. Even his idol Halliday, who created the Easter egg hunt, never bothers to engage with the media he loves, explore its meanings, delve into its texts. All that mattered about the media Halliday deemed important was that it happened in a certain point in history and contained some proximity to what he considered "nerd" culture.

ready player one
Halliday and Wade Watts | Warner Bros. Pictures

There is never any value or artistic merit assigned to anything, except for one scene wherein Aech and Parzival have a pissing contest regarding the merits of Ladyhawke, which Parzival considers "canon" (i.e. sacred to Halliday) and Aech does not. There is no such thing as layers of enjoyment, explorations of what made The Shining scary or why Ladyhawke was enjoyable besides that Halliday said so. The characters collect the media of Halliday’s childhood like Pokémon, memorizing his favorite movies and becoming masters at his favorite games, but because of a game of one-upmanship, not because they enjoy them.

Instead, what we get is Halliday's contest for control of his virtual reality world, which rewards the player not for intellectually or emotionally engaging with the media they consume, but instead rote memorization and being mechanically good at video games. A computer could more easily win the contest because the two most important skills -- spitting out memorized lines from movies and playing '80s video games the bestest -- require no critical brain to do so. It's not about the depth of a player's knowledge base or the encouragement of critical thinking (itself the very enemy of nostalgia!), it's about the amount of references they get.

The one integral thing that Spielberg understands is that all of these pop culture references don’t really matter unless they directly relate to what the character is going through. Instead of a series of rewards for slavish rote memorization of movies like War Games, Spielberg’s vision played up the challenges by relating mistakes made throughout Halliday’s life. Memorizing lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail is replaced with solving puzzles directly relating to Halliday’s own regrets. The film version doesn’t add any dimension to Wade or Halliday’s relationship to the media they’re obsessed with, but at least it understands that it’s hard to stay emotionally engaged in a narrative where the pop culture references have no connection to what’s going on with the characters. So, they fade to the background of reference for reference’s sake, rather than becoming the focus. The film gets its selling points, but still has no thoughts on our relationship to the media we consume.

Spielberg, of course, obliges the audience’s apparently unquenchable thirst for nostalgia, and at times his own (the inclusion of The Shining, for instance, feels quite gratuitous). And there is a place for that -- there is evidence that nostalgia in moderation can actually be good for mental health.

But it needs to be balanced, and big production companies commodifying their own properties to hit those happy buttons cheapens all parties involved. The inclusion of the Iron Giant (and his later death with a thumbs up, a la Terminator 2) as a war machine isn’t a crime, but it does show that the filmmakers don’t really care all that much about the media they are professing to adore, and of their audience, they expect the same.

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Lindsay Ellis is a video essayist, entertainment writer, and day drinker. You can see more of her longform video essay work on the subject of filmmaking, writing, and narrative structure on YouTube.