What Ready Player One Could Learn from The Lego Movie

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Posted April 11, 2018 by Haley Schojbert in Movies

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline takes place in a dystopian future, where the population of Earth spends all of its time in a virtual reality game called the OASIS.  The game developer who created the OASIS, James Halliday, dies and encrypts a hidden “egg” within the game, containing his entire fortune. The player who finds three keys within the game will win his fortune and gain control over the OASIS.

In the book, the keys are rewarded based on intricate knowledge of ’80s pop culture, which frames Halliday as exclusionary and narcissistic because the contest is only won through the regurgitation and memorization of his favorite things. In the movie, the main character, Wade, finds the keys by taking different approaches in enjoying and exploring the game. Movie Halliday is motivated by rectifying his regrets in life; he wanted the OASIS to be inherited by someone who would share the responsibility instead of isolating and shutting people out like he did. The big business villains, IOI, who try to gain control of the OASIS in order to charge people for it (and bother them with advertisements, I guess?) base their strategy on knowing as much as they can about Halliday. They lose because they don’t have the true appreciation for the material that Wade does.

With this change, the story is no longer a competition of who can be the “best nerd” by memorizing pointless information (and believe me, Wade’s expository dialogue and endless need to over-explain every reference within the book is tiring), but a story about the importance of friendship and interaction with other people over winning for the sake of doing so or being the most knowledgeable.

That being said, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline has become a bit of a bipartisan issue; on the one hand, it’s a fun and mindless romp through nerdom and nostalgia where big robots fight each other, and on the other, it has become the physical embodiment of some of the ugliest aspects of nerd culture with its benevolent sexism and superficial commercialism. And although the movie improved upon the book by cutting out Wade’s obsessive and creepy behavior in stalking the main female protagonist, Samantha, it has its share of plot contrivances, (they all live in the same city now?) and the characters’ relationships are shallow and underdeveloped. They are one-dimensional tropes with tacked on backstories and feelings disassociated from any emotional connection to those around them. “You killed my mother’s…sister” is a line that comes out of Wade’s mouth at one point, and despite being played for comedy, it depletes any hope for audience pathos relating to any traumatic or depressing element…in the dystopian story.

The world feels less lived-in and explored than it did in the novel, which is impressive, seeing as the economic crisis is a plot point with the sole purpose of enabling Halliday to have his contest in the first place.

Ready Player One is a supposed love letter to nerd culture that has a completely daft understanding of that culture. (It took five years for someone to drive backwards in a racing game? This isn’t the Wind Waker barrier skip.) Most poignantly, with Ready Player One‘s status as a blockbuster, it is unable to make commentary villainizing corporate overlords stealing beloved content away from adoring fans because RPO itself decontextualizes all of the references within it.

In the book, the references and nods to nerd culture were used to show Wade’s in-depth knowledge and superiority complex, which is a problem of a different breed, but the movie uses references without purpose, and decontextualizes their original meaning even more than the book does. The most obvious, and most discussed online, being how the Iron Giant is now a war machine, when The Iron Giant is an anti-war narrative that calls for pacifism and empathy. In doing this, RPO inherently ignores the original intent of The Iron Giant, lessening its value to broader audiences. The central conflict of IOI taking over nerd culture for profit is empty because of the movie’s shallow representation of the media within, which is used as weaponized nostalgia to give validation to viewers that were children in the 80s. And this is not just an issue with Ready Player One; decontextualization of Star Wars looks like little kids wearing Darth Vader and Stormtrooper t-shirts because the iconography is easy to market, even if these characters are the equivalent of space fascists.

And while I don’t think that this is necessarily something that can or should always be avoided, stripping away the thematic purpose of a character or piece of media can be exploitative and something to be aware of. There are ways to be referential and appeal to childish wonder in a positive and endearing way without forgetting the intent or thematic purpose of the primary source. Ready Player One misses the mark, not because it has generic tropes and pointless references, but because it adds nothing to the conversation. But you know what did successfully subvert tropes and used referential humor without changing its characters? The Lego Movie.

The Lego Movie is also a corporate film; it’s even made by the same company (Warner Bros). But, the film is blatantly aware that it is basically a toy commercial, shown through the way in which it uses Lego. All of the nerd culture references within it are self-aware, clever, and really illustrate what it feels like to be a kid. When Lego Batman enters the fray, the movie assumes that the audience knows who Batman is and doesn’t have the main character take asides to explain the significance of him. Rather, the character of Batman is a satirical interpretation of Bruce Wayne as self-indulgent and egotistical. They are not rewriting Batman as a completely different character in earnest, but making fun of his wealth and persona. It’s not like they took Batman as a icon and made him kill people in an edgy reboot—I mean, who would do that sort of thing? Lego Batman is a character that amplifies Batman’s traits out of parody, and it is believable when the movie reveals that he, and all of the other characters, exist within a child’s imagination. It is also important to note that Lego Batman doesn’t appear until well into the second act of the movie, joining the story-in-progress.

The meta-narrative of The Lego Movie gives an in-universe explanation for why Shakespeare, Gandalf, and Wonder Woman would all be hanging out. By showing all of these characters mingling in bizarre and nonsensical ways, The Lego Movie is complementing its own themes of playfulness. There should be no restrictions on fun—an imagination should be allowed to flourish. The Lego Movie is a story of a father who wants to glue all his Legos in place because his son keeps sneaking down to play with them. The child combines the toys to create a new world and story, not adhering to the rules and keeping the characters within their respective sections of the Lego display. Even with this in mind, the references within The Lego Movie do not change the way that the audience views these properties because even if these characters are parodies of themselves, they do not stray from their established moral compasses.

There are more parallels to be drawn between these movies: Like, The Lego Movie critiques its own simple story through the meta-narrative of “The Special”. It takes pains to criticize the Chosen One narrative by showing how boring and ordinary the main protagonist is. His female counterpart, Lucy, is more competent and skilled for the task at hand, and becomes frustrated that she could not fulfill the prophecy. Emmett then finds out that the prophecy that he was chosen for is a sham. In RPO, Artemis is much more equipped to complete the challenges than Wade is and loses anyway, but the movie is utterly sincere in presenting an unremarkable character that has no correlation who waltzes through all of the challenges without any troublesome inertia.

More than anything, The Lego Movie fundamentally benefits from playful references because they complement the central theme of the film: Playfulness without restrictions. While Ready Player One might take place in a world with playful references, they are hollow and only serve as a distraction from its flawed, simplistic story and characters.

What are the consequences of presenting the references and characters as Ready Player One does? To me, in order to subvert or challenge the audience’s pre-established views of beloved icons, there must be a purpose, whether that is through a critical lens in using satire or parody, paying genuine homage, or giving a redemption arc to a character once villainized as commentary on the oppressive forces at large in society (i.e. Disney’s treatment of Maleficient). Does making the Iron Giant a violent, Terminator-thumbs-up robot add a new layer to the source material or create a new, viable interpretation for that character? No, it doesn’t.

The media that we consume changes the way that we interpret the world. I cannot help but be cynical towards dismantling a beloved character’s ideology of pacifism to fit a narrative that milks a cash cow of nostalgia. Ready Player One is pop culture void—to quote Lego Shakespeare— “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”


About the Author

Haley Schojbert

Haley is an editor, a writer, and a reader that enjoys playing role-playing video games, talking about fictional characters, and being totally awesome.