Last Friday, a collected spew of my generic templated childhood called Ready Player One hit screens. It is already headed to an overperforming opening weekend based on middling reviews and a marketing campaign that reads more like a computer generated Where’s Waldo than the description of a narrative film. In fact, I went to see it opening day. You’re welcome, Dreamworks.
Ready Player One marks a kind of renewable milestone in marketing, where a film that is a collection of pop culture touchstones is packaged as a start of a goodbye tour to the generation of the people who care about these references. We have been here before. American Graffiti celebrated the childhoods of then thirty something white baby boomers, moving on to celebrating their younger sibling’s Motown soundtracked ennui with The Big Chill. Ready Player One exists in dialogue with these two films, but also breaks with some of the traditions of this mini-genre.
The two nostalgia pictures already mentioned existed in a time before international marketing was a major tentpole of film releasing. Both were romantic comedy dramas based around ensembles made by up and coming directors from the eras that were depicted, George Lucas for American Graffiti and Lawrence Kasdan for the Big Chill. This tends to be the traditional delivery method for this particular bid for market share. So in making a more modern example of a very old breed of film, a question arises. How does one nod to the childhoods of a certain white demographic while still surefire selling in China? Ernest Cline and Zak Penn just marry it to the modern blockbuster action franchise. Then the producers, instead of finding someone who lived with the reference point the characters were trying to inhabit, find the man who helped build some of those references, Steven Spielberg.
Ready Player One, then, is a studio attempt at a movie proof marketing campaign. For the main demographic, we have whole seconds of trailer space devoted to totems of things once loved. For the world, explosions delivered proficiently. As a movie what we have is significantly less than the sum of those.