Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Ready Player One: Unpacking the weird 80s obsessions of the Oasis

In READY PLAYER ONE, a weird thing about the Oasis is the preponderance of 80s-era pop culture. I can accept that apparently at some point, culture stagnated and so everyone's left with reheated reminders of the past, but it's weird that things are so heavily 80s and so heavily geek culture on top of that. Where are the musical theater nerds? The Shakespeare buffs? The Ren fair weirdos for that matter? I know we get a couple cameos that scrape the 90s and a bit before the 80s but it stands out that everything is all the "acceptably cool" (and as someone pointed out to me, "Male-coded") culture of the 80s.

Growing up, I got pretty into oldies, but because everything I learned came from oldies radio, not only was I mostly exposed to the hits - I didn't have any window into which hits came from "lame" bands back then. From my father's reaction when I put "Build Me Up Buttercup" on an oldies mix CD, I intuited this was NOT a cool song back in the day. The same thing also divorced The Monkees from their stigma as a novelty band ("Daydream Believer is a great song, shut up) and someone rescues The Dave Clark 5 from being seen as also-rans to the Beatles.

My point is, in 2045, people who didn't live through 80s culture should have an entirely different relationship with it. What if Wade rocked out to Tiffany because he liked the beat of "I Think We're Alone Now?" Maybe he thinks ISHTAR is an incredible comedy, or that ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS represents Mel Brooks at his best. Or hell, what if he thinks THE GOONIES is a fucking annoying movie to watch because of all the screaming kids? The best material will always endure, but other stuff is bound to slip through the cracks and be reevaluated too. I might have found it easier to see so much geek culture thrive in this future if it had been portrayed in a way that felt distinctly different from the nostalgic eyes of someone who grew up in the 80s.

I brought this point up on Twitter and a dozen or so people explained to me that Halliday was obsessed with the 80s and so people became obsessed with 80s culture because they were convinced that was the key to winning the hunt in the Oasis, with the result being that 80s culture became the dominant culture. I think that's a really simplistic way to present a culture, the sort of thing that would only fly in the original STAR TREK, where cultural contamination would lead to an entire planet of 1930s mobsters. More relevantly, this is not how the movie presents things at all.

In fact, 80s culture turns out to not be the main way to thrive on the quest. Wade solves the first challenge by decoding a bit of Riddler-like wordplay from Halliday. Then Art3mis figures out the first step of the second riddle in a similar way, with the solution to the second task being accomplished more through a knowledge of Halliday's past than 80s film simulation they find themselves in.

The third task absolutely rests on 80s geek trivia, I'll give you that.

But in the world of the challenge, no one's beaten the first challenge after five years, so there's not a compelling pointer that would make people assume that engaging the 80s would provide any better solution than studying Halliday. There's some effort made to have the puzzle be about learning from Halliday's regrets and that's kind of neat even if only one (don't be too shy to kiss the girl) seems directly relevant to Wade's life.

Also, if I conceded the point of those who I cite the book, I'd retort by pointing out that the Oasis was already an obsession even before Halliday's scavenger hunt. People were addicted to it before 80s culture became the thing to study, and presumably that's because there were no limits to what one could do there. Given that, is it credible that people would cast aside those obsessions to take on a new one, especially if their goal is just to preserve the thing that fed their original obsessions?

I think the movie dodges a lot of this by showing us little of the real world and by focusing mostly on characters who might have adopted some 80s geekdom along the way. Still, I would have loved to have seen a slightly broader diversity within the oasis. Turns out that limitless imagination looks a lot like the Exhibit Hall of Comic-Con.

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