Nobody says being a giant means you’re infallible.
For several years, a hot book from a freshly minted novelist circulated among the swank conference rooms and expensive lunch tables of the media world. After an intense bidding war, Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One” was finally on a trajectory to the silver screen, amplified by his own screenplay based on his source material. None other than the great populist himself, Steven Spielberg, would direct.
Cline is no newcomer to the world of storytelling. He has a number of screenwriting credits to his name, and he built a loyal following of geeks and freaks over the years who like the tales he tells. “Ready Player One” put him in a new galaxy, however, rocketing to the top of best seller lists around the country, only to arrive at an even shinier Warner Brothers payday. With Spielberg’s golden touch for fanciful flights of dreamy escape, the project looked like would be the new event movie.
The book and its matching screenplay concern a future struggling in the aftermath of a massive energy crisis. Somehow, despite the lack of reliable power, virtual reality has become a major cultural influence, and the place where we find our neer-do-well protagonist. The plot careens through chance encounters, heroic quests, and inevitable moments of personal discovery in an effort to change the fortunes of the hero.
That’s the book. Reviews were solid; fans loved it—cracker-jacks for those who liked to disappear into escapist narrative.
In movie-production land, however, rumors began to leak: something was not quite right. Pre-production got underway, then principal shooting. Did this make sense? Was this the story that people wanted to see on a big screen? All indications were that this was to be the next “it” movie, a blend of old time adventure and new-fangled futurism, a dystopic expanse that audiences were finally used to seeing (See also: Hunger Games, Divergent, Blade Runner, The Walking Dead, and twenty-ka-zillion other stories about things going badly for humanity). Considering that the story concerned massive multiplayer video games and virtual reality, there seemed to be huge potential for product tie-ins and nostalgic views of the past—which meant multiple target age groups. The trailer to the movie also trades in endless pop culture references, dangling them on screen like fishing lines. Naturally the story also included an adolescent romance designed to attract young males and females, essential if the movie was to be a breakout, mainstream hit.
When something looks like it’s got the formula down, one begins to wonder if there’s a soul inside that formula, or simply a series a cold algorithm built of logical instructions.
When an early teaser emerged onto the internet a few months ago, vague echoes of sad sounding trombones played in the minds of audiences far and wide. Yawn! The trailer looked like Spielberg, and felt like Spielberg, but Spielberg developed his Spielberg-y look and feel in the last quarter of the 20th Century. While there’s no doubt that he’s made terrific movies since then (Lincoln, Bridge of Spies) his older, adolescent groove is not the vibe that generally describes early 21st Century culture. Something seemed amiss, even as all the parts looked like they were in place.
Are we looking at a huge misfire from The Master? Can’t say for sure: the movie hasn’t been released yet. But contemplating the possibility provokes a few important considerations.
First, even great creators can make less-than-ideal choices. Not every single piece of music in Mozart’s massive oeuvre deserves equal opportunity for performance.
The larger, more vital consideration concerns the transformation of culture. Culture always changes, responding to circumstances and styles, events and experiences. These days we live in a more fragmented culture than ever before, with a million nuanced sub-cultures vying for attention and relevance. The internet and the various forms of content it delivers presents strangely singular refractions of the culture to every user. There is no longer big, monolithic culture. Things are more complicated these days. Content delivery has become atomized, thus rendering precisely tailored media experiences and values in ways the modern world has never seen before. While big, mainstream media events still have currency, the range of possibilities have narrowed precisely because there are fewer big tents anymore. Everyone stays inside their own camp more and more, and it’s rare for people to sit next to people they haven’t already identified as members of the right clan.
This is all about tribalism versus trend-spotting. Where minorities, cultural niches, and special interests once had to shoehorn themselves into less specific media experiences, they could project their own identities (at least) into big, fantastical entertainments. There were thought experiments that could be bolted on to mainstream, middle-of-the-road stories. But now in an era where many subcultures are, finally, more free to be themselves (although let’s not pretend: there are still miles to go!) big tent entertainments of the past do not necessarily have the same magnetism for subcultures of the present. Implication of commonality in big corporate entertainments is no longer adequate when people have a much better chance of actually finding commonality simply by typing their tribal self-descriptions into a Google search box.
There’s still more. Ordinary technical competence is no longer enough to confer quality. Movies simply are expected to deliver extraordinary visuals and sound. The democratization of sophisticated tools have enabled mediocre artists to delivery surprisingly polished works, at least superficially. Where stories of fantastic worlds used to capture pop culture attention, they do not necessarily do so anymore. Spaceships and aliens are easy; good stories about them are not. Dystopias used to be all the rage, but hey! Who needs an artificial dystopia these days? Have you spent any time reading the news lately?
We live in a darker time, where white hats and black hats aren't as easy to pick out of fictional crowds as they once were. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of Spielberg’s great youthful entertainments, we knew who the bad guys were because they wore Nazi uniforms. A decade later we knew who the bad guys were in Amistad (well intentioned, but not nearly as good) because they were the ones buying and selling slaves at auction. Since then, audiences demand more. While slave traders or their apologists will never have even the smallest measure of acceptability, other stories demand more nuanced presentations.
In the real world today, the most accomplished, most daring American explorers fly to the International Space Station to share months on orbit with Russian colleagues. It’s ironic. The levels of technical, scientific, and interpersonal trust necessary for life and work on ISS are extraordinary and highly complex. Considering the profoundly distrustful animus between our countries—Russia: the country that purportedly tried to sabotage American elections— it’s hard to know what side anyone’s on anywhere. Ethics have all become contextual. They always were, but before atomized modes of information consumption emerged (think Twitter, YouTube, Facebook), broader expressions had to contain more diverse groups. Now we want to see more nuance and texture in our media diets, and because we now can in ways we never could before, all of the media mechanisms we used to think would work….might not!
Ultimately, we we return to “Ready Player One”. Do we believe in the story? Are the promises of endless pop cultural references going to work like one long, self-referential tickle-in-the-ribs? Is it perceptive enough to make us care? Is it good, or is it just showy? Is it cool? We’re going to find out in 2018. It might be a blast. It might be a dud. But one thing we do know for sure is that the maxim attributed to screenwriter William Goldman remains eternally true: “Nobody knows anything.”