Pleasantville and Ready Player One

The 1998 Pleasantville movie is basically the antithesis of Ready Player One, the 2011 book.  (For various reasons, the Ready Player One 2018 movie is not as direct a comparison.)

Pleasantville is about smashing nostalgia, while Ready Player One is about celebrating it.

If Wade Watts had been transported to Pleasantville, it seems fairly likely that he would have quite happily stayed in black and white, reciting memorized lines episode by episode until he reached the end of a rerun cycle and looped back to the beginning again, looping endlessly without change, much like Pleasantville’s Main Street goes nowhere, its end just taking you back to its beginning.

One has to wonder whether he would have lived out this existence happily, a kind of static safe immortality in an unchanging world, or if at some point he would have wanted to break out.  Would pleasant safety have outweighed all other considerations?

It may be hard to imagine that someone could crave that endless sameness, but to some extent it depends on your learned experiences and mental processing about uncertainty.  The past stays in place, it stays at a safe distance.  The present can be overwhelming.  Pleasantville celebrates the reality of our colourful, noisy, chaotic, uncertain world, but not all of us are equipped by nature or nurture to embrace that experience.

Margaret Henderson: “What’s outside of Pleasantville?”
[long pause]
David / Bud: “There are some places that the road doesn’t go in a circle. There are some places where the road keeps going.”

Margaret: “So what’s it like?”
David: “What?”
Margaret: “Out there.”
David: “Well, it’s a … it’s louder, and… scarier, I guess, and it’s a… lot more dangerous.”
Margaret: “Sounds fantastic.”

And it is fantastic but also, it can be overwhelming, and painful.  Beautiful

David and Margaret in Pleasantville.

David and Margaret in Pleasantville.

but also painful.

David’s Mom: “I’m 40 years old, I mean it’s not supposed to be like this.”
David: “It’s not supposed to be anything.”

The past is predictable.  The Romans will always invade Britain in 43 AD, Harry Potter will always be sorted into Gryffindor, Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy will always save the world from nuclear war.  Wade Watts will watch Family Ties over and over again and Michael J. Fox will always be Alex P. Keaton, no more and no less.  You can loop around and around in reruns or rewatching or rereading and the characters never get to rebel, the events never change.

I’ve written about this kind of toxic nostalgia in the context of Ready Player One, but I didn’t talk a lot about why.  James Halliday has toxic nostalgia because he’s damaged.  He can have everything that money can buy, but he can’t have a different past, all his coding and control can’t change the fact that Kira Underwood married Og, not him.

There are only two ways through that.

Eternal Safety

In My-So Called Life, Brian will never ask out Angela, he will always be standing in episode 19, the last episode, watching her drive away with Jordan.  Because it’s the safe choice, the controlled choice.  In Star Trek: Generations, Tolian Soran will destroy an entire world just to escape back to the safe and controlled immortality of The Nexus.  Both destroying the future to stay safe alone.

In BBC Radio 4 – Archive on 4 – Commuterville, Matthew Sweet reaches his conclusion about the endlessly repeated routine of our lives in very English school essay fashion, calling on Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence.  There is a definite comfort in routine, but also a kind of madness.

Endless Change

George Parker: “So what’s going to. happen now?”
Betty Parker: “I don’t know.  Do you know what’s going to happen now?
George Parker: “No, I don’t.”

It’s easy to say we should embrace this uncertainty, that we should learn the lesson of 1993’s Groundhog Day and work on making ourselves better as we go through our routine days.  But have empathy for those who are struggling to escape their life experiences and expectations.

It’s not supposed to be anything

There is supposed to be a kind of arc, a youthful embrace of change followed by an adult settling into a safe routine.  But Pleasantville challenges this arc.  While it certainly does celebrate youthful change, it makes it clear there is no winning, there is no right ending.  There’s just uncertainty.  Ready Player One is about what happens if you reject that uncertainty.  This is playing out at a large scale across our society.  People miss the factories… but you know, the factories were kind of terrible too.  We can’t go back.  It’s not coming back.  All you really get to choose is whether you’re going to be James Halliday and Wade Watts, endlessly jumping through a portal into an unchanging past, or if you’re going to be David, finding that there is beauty in change after all.

Critiques of Ready Player One

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
– John Adams

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.
– Daniel Patrick Moynihan (attributed)

And at last our rules have reached stability, and we regard them now with the virtuous pride of men who have persisted in a great undertaking and arrived at precision after much tribulation.
– H.G. Wells, Little Wars

Singing the strong light works of engineers,

The earth to be spann’d, connected by net-work,
The people to become brothers and sisters,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together.
– Walt Whitman, Passage to India

I had thought we were past the distinctions between high culture and low culture, that we were past exclusionary fandom, that we were able to celebrate a diversity of cultural experiences. But then I read the reviews of Ready Player One and it was clear that we are still back in 1980s high school.

I have never read a review of a Western where the critic first needed to declare, in no uncertain terms, that he was not a cowboy, nor have I read a review of The French Connection that felt it necessary to critique car culture before mentioning the car chase. But somehow critics seem to feel the need to state that they are definitely not geeks or fans of video games when reviewing Ready Player One. It’s as if they’re all I-r0k, loudly proclaiming “If I didn’t spend so much time offline, getting laid…” Is this some high school clique thing all over again? The theatre club in one corner of the cafeteria looking down on the D&D club? Because you know, pretending to be someone else on a stage is totally different than pretending to be someone else in a game.

Or the reviews are full of praise about how Spielberg removed all the yucky geekiness from the book. Yeah, I know, I like Midsummer Night’s Dream, but only if the director takes out all that weird magic stuff.

If you think I’m exaggerating:

  • The Outline – ‘Ready Player One’ is a terrible book and it will be a terrible movie
  • Vox – Ready Player One is a truly awful book. I’m really looking forward to the movie.
  • (I could go on for many lines, but you get the idea.)

The New York Times tries to do a balanced review, but then has a line like this:

I, for one, didn’t quite understand why, given the global reach of the Oasis, all the relevant players were so conveniently clustered in Ohio. (If anyone wants to explain, please find me on Twitter so I can mute you.)

Can you imagine this is some other context? In a review of Jerry Maguire? “I for one, don’t quite understand what a touchdown is. (If anyone wants to explain, please find me on Twitter so I can mute you.)”

Because that’s where we still are apparently. We’re still in a world where the New York Times can have entire sections about games with invented rules, called Sports and Finance, but no section about video games, even though video games are a $36 billion industry.

“Get a life!” said William Shatner infamously in his 1986 Saturday Night Live skit. Over 30 years later, we get the spectacle of critics bringing all their insightful expertise and analysis together to say… Get a life. Quite the progress we’ve made.

Oh but it’s ok, if you’re dismissing those people, the ones with the weird obsessions.

Can you imagine the New York Times reviewing a performance of Das Rheingold and talking about the magic silver bracelet? Repeatedly? Can you imagine the outraged erudite letters?

But the New York Times has no problem reviewing Guardians of the Galaxy and talking about “the blue rock”. Um, it’s not blue, it’s purple. I know that doesn’t matter to you, New York Times, but it matters in the context of the movie. There are six infinity stones, they have different colours with different powers, Marvel just spent literally a decade and well over a billion dollars building up to a movie about them. But hey, who cares about rules and facts.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that the invented rules and resulting facts of sports and your other favoured cultures are important, and the invented rules and facts of video games and comic book movies aren’t.

But we all know how this goes, The Onion explained it long ago: Walking Sports Database Scorns Walking Sci-Fi Database.

Put on a Star Trek uniform and go to an event where you pretend to understand people up on a stage talking in Klingon? Weird.
Put on a tuxedo and go to an event where you pretend to understand people up on a stage singing in Italian? Totally normal. Opera! High culture!

Opera which is all about ridiculous and often magical turns of events. Which uses absurd spectacle to take you to the highs and lows of human emotion. Which is totally different from a comic book movie, which uses absurd spectacle to… well you get the idea.

SCENA I                               SCENE I
Figaro con una misura in mano e       Figaro has a measuring-stick in hand 
Susanna allo specchio che si sta      and Susanna stands in front of the mirror, 
mettendo un capellino ornato di       trying on a hat decorated with 
fiori                                 flowers.
N. 1 Duettino                         No. 1 Duet
FIGARO:                               FIGARO:
[misurando]                           [measuring] 
Cinque ... dieci ... venti ...        Five ...  ten ...  twenty ...  
trenta ... trentasei ... quarantatre. thirty ...  thirty-six ...  forty-three.

Yes, opera, featuring… counting. In Italian!

Anyway, Anna Russell can do a much better job of the absurdities of opera than I can.

Is Ready Player One an amazing book? No. I will readily admit it is a book about horrible people. But lots of books (and movies, and opera, and theatre) are about horrible people, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exist, or that they aren’t entertaining.

Please don’t dismiss entire genres. There are people who like those genres. You’re dismissing actual people, or worse saying they shouldn’t even exist. And don’t try to take some lonely kid sitting in front of a computer in 1986 and try to paint him as some symbol of 2018’s online trolls or misogynists or whatever current cultural problems you want to critique.

I’m not going to write sports reviews or opera reviews; I don’t know anything about sports and opera. But if you like them, I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong. Who am I to tell you how to experience culture?

Brandon (Justin Long) and his friends in Galaxy Quest? They’re just having fun. Just because it’s not your idea of fun, doesn’t mean that you should just dismiss them.

I did find some reviews that I could identify with:

It’s fair to be critical of something within its own context. That can be useful. Does it follow its own rules? Does it fit in its own genre? io9 did a critical review of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen that is a kind of masterpiece. There is lots to critique out there, there are lots of terrible movies. But just because a movie or a book is in a genre doesn’t mean you get to automatically dismiss it. Terminator 2 is a powerful movie about nuclear war. Wall-E is a powerful movie about loneliness. Science fiction, fantasy, gaming… they can all bring real insights. And they can also just be fun.

The point being, this is all just invented rules for our entertainment. Enjoy what you enjoy.  Bridge the arts and technology, connect genres. Have empathy. Be inclusive.

xkcd 1480: Super Bowl

What to watch instead of Ready Player One 2018

What is a better Ready Player One movie than Ready Player One (2018)?

The correct answer is The Lego Movie (2014).  I would also accept the original Tron (1982) although I would award fewer points.

Movies About Gaming and Escape

Ready Player One (the book) is about escaping into a game, into a world where you use your creativity to solve challenges. The closest era fit is the original Tron from 1982. But I think The Lego Movie does an even better job of celebrating play and the mixing together of your creativity with pop culture, understanding loneliness, and being a fun movie.

Wreck-It Ralph (2012) is a great celebration of both classic arcade games and the evolution to more advanced games.

The Neverending Story (1984) is a better story about loneliness and creativity and escape. (For that matter, so is 1982’s E.T., by a director who shall remain nameless.)

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) has some appalling stereotypes, and redeems itself only somewhat by subverting them in-game. But nevertheless, it understands game mechanics, including using the mechanics of the game against itself, and it is funny. Also, because you can die in-game, you get a sense of peril when e.g. the helicopter is being fixed in flight, that you never get in Ready Player One (2018).

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) is not strictly speaking a video game movie but in its live-die-repeat mechanics manages to capture the essence of a particular type of game where you keep replaying the same level in order to advance.

I look forward, possibly after several more failed attempts, to a Ready Player One remake that eventually gets it right.

How to watch the Ready Player One 2018 movie

(For fans of the 2011 book.)

0001 watch WarGames (1983)
0002 play a favourite video arcade game e.g. Asteroids, in an emulator
0003 play D&D, or reminisce about D&D with your old group, or re-read an old module
0004 optionally watch Ladyhawke (1985), even though the swords look like they’re made          of tinfoil and the soundtrack is full of synthesizers
0005 watch Real Genius (1985)
0006 watch Star Wars IV (1977), V (1980) and VI (1983)
0007 watch Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
0008 watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
0009 watch favourite episodes of Star Trek (The Original Series, 1966-1969)
0010 watch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982),
         Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
0011 listen to some 80s music you like
0012 watch Star Blazers season 1 (1979)
0013 play Joust (1982) in an emulator
0014 play Zork (Zork I, 1980)
0015 watch The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984)
0016 watch Max Headroom (TV series, 1987-1988)
0017 watch The Last Starfighter (1984)
0018 watch The Neverending Story (1984)
0019 watch Blade Runner (1982) – whichever cut you prefer
0020 listen to Rush’s 2112, if you like Rush
0021 watch Highlander (1986)
0022 enjoy some classic Schoolhouse Rock (1973-1985)
0023 watch Short Circuit (1986)
0024 play Tempest in an emulator
0025 re-read Ready Player One, the 2011 book
0026 don’t watch Ready Player One, the 2018 movie

Because Ready Player One, the 2018 movie is … Beyond lame.  Highlander II lame.

April 8, 2018  Ready Player One (2018) short review