(This post will contain a few spoilers if you haven’t seen the movie yet.)
Despite what you might conclude from the title of this post, I really enjoyed both the movie and the book. After seeing the movie, I commented on Facebook that it was better than The Last Jedi and Black Panther – two movies I also liked at the time – although I kind of hate TLJ now. (I also said that the musical numbers were inferior to The Greatest Showman – a joke that had the effect of only confusing people. It was surprising though when Parzival and Art3mis, in a spasm of 1980’s nostalgia, broke out in a reprise of The Facts of Life theme song.)
I stand by that first impression, but after taking a few days to think about it, I’ve come to think that RPO gets at least two things mostly right and one thing mostly wrong.
The Way We Was
If you read the book before watching the movie, and you are of that particular cadre of people who insist on literary fidelity in their movies, you are going to be disappointed. But my guess is that if you are one of these people you probably have a general disposition calibrated for disappointment and probably have all the charm of this guy.
The fact is that even though the screenplay was co-written by the author of the book (Ernest Cline), the movie doesn’t make much of an attempt to be faithful to the details of the book. The movie was inspired by the book, but not really an adaptation of the book.
And to be quite honest, I don’t care and neither should anyone watching the movie. Because it actually made it a better movie. The pop culture references in the book are thick to the point of being relentless. The medium of a book better supports that level of immersion than a movie. The book is obsessive about 1980’s geek culture in ways that made guys like me giddy. There was a new memory on every page. The movie, on the other hand, isn’t so much obsessed as it is amused by that culture. The nostalgia gets a sort of joy-filled wink in the movie without holding it hostage.
A lot of people have been debating about this part of the movie, but I think it got it mostly right. (This will probably be one of those movies that will be fun to watch over and over again hoping to catch something new. There are already sites dedicated to mining the film for Easter eggs.) Nostalgia can serve a worthwhile purpose. It is a sort of therapy that helps to orient us in an otherwise disorienting world. Seeing a Delorean on a screen doesn’t just remind me of a movie I liked. If that was all nostalgia accomplished, it wouldn’t be worth very much. No, a Delorean literally has the ability to take me back to a time and a place. It recreates a feeling from my youth that maybe I thought was lost. That’s why we love nostalgia – not for its literal referent, but because we are all romantics at heart.
But if we aren’t careful, nostalgia can be its own trap. Just like the Oasis, nostalgia can isolate us in a synthetic world that no longer exists. It becomes too easy pine for the past that has been lost while the present reality decays from neglect. That’s why it is probably better and healthier to be amused by nostalgia than to be obsessed with it.
Good Times at the Movies
Another thing that the movie gets mostly right is its entertainment value. At the end of the day, the purpose of a movie is to entertain. Sometimes critics get too serious and end up forgetting that. And this was an entertaining movie. I could nitpick about character development (of which there wasn’t nearly enough) or the comparatively lackluster scenes that took place outside of the Oasis. But despite some flaws, it was an entertaining movie that was really beautiful to look at. Spielberg still knows how to entertain.
A Movie that Thinks
But what the movie mostly got wrong was the message. The Oasis is a major character in the movie. It is similar to a Matrix-style simulacrum that virtually every person is voluntarily choosing to live most of their waking hours inside. I’m sure that by the year where the events of RPO take place the Oasis seems somewhat compulsory to most people in the way that driving automobiles seems compulsory to us. The Oasis is one of those few inventions that fundamentally changes the way it is to be human. Such inventions like the printing press, electricity, and the internal combustion engine make it hard to imagine life and society without them.
But here is the question that the movie frustratingly left unexplored. Is the Oasis a cultural good that should be retained? There is no button you could press to do away with electricity or the internal combustion engine, but we learn at the end of the movie (and the book) that there is actually a button which, if pressed, would literally make the Oasis disappear. Now, both the book and the movie do offer judgments of the Oasis. Choosing to live life virtually has had catastrophic effects on the planet and on civil society. At the end of both the book and the movie, the creator of the Oasis talks longingly about the importance of Reality. The movie ends with a kind of Chick-fil-a pledge that for the good of reality the Oasis will be closed two days a week.
But I was frustrated. I felt that the compelling question of the movie was ultimately lost and forgotten. There was never even a question about whether or not the button would or should be pushed. (At one point the button was nearly pushed accidentally which really only served the purpose of reminding the audience that it shouldn’t be pushed.) One wonders why it was even a plot device. I went back to the book today and reread the last few chapters to see if the book was any different, and really it wasn’t. Yes, in the book (like the movie) “love conquers all” at the end and the main character finds himself wanting to live in the real world with his new love interest rather than the artificial reality of the Oasis. There’s really a Good Will Hunting vibe to the movie where Aech is playing Ben Affleck, Halliday is Robin Williams, and Sorrento is the evil math professor guy. At the end of the movie, predictably, Parzival has to go “see about a girl.”
But the book and the movie set up an opportunity for more serious reflection that wasn’t fully capitalized upon. It’s hard not to see elements of the book as prophecy. The last 20 years have seen technological leaps unprecedented in human history. And many of those leaps have to do with living more and more of our lives in some sort of digitally mediated reality. These advances have changed what it means to be human so much that we have a hard time remembering what life was really like even 20 years ago. What do you suppose the next 20 years will have in store? There are elements of this new reality that are innocent and even good. But many people are starting to sound the alarm. Is this really good for us – as individuals and as communities? What is being lost of our humanity as our virtual identities colonize more and more of our “real” identities? It’s funny that most of the cultural references in the movie are from the paleo-analog age – a time when it was easy to imagine a talking car being the apex of technological advance – a simpler, more human time. Maybe that’s why so many of the references resonate even with those who never lived through the 80’s.
But imagine a world where the button was pushed. What would such a world even look like? Would it be better or worse? Why? In my opinion, these are the questions that the movie and the book whiffed on. Yes, the creator of the Oasis monologues about the importance of reality, but his heart is never in it because I’m not sure he is totally convinced. Sure, you can “get a decent meal” in the real world (The Matrix asked us to think of a day where the only decent steak a person can get is in the virtual mirage of the Matrix), but is there any other compelling reason to resist a life spent inside the easy and instant gratification and pleasures of a simulacrum? We aren’t all that different than Halliday. We talk about the virtues of the real world, but I wonder if our hearts are really in it. These are the kinds of questions that I wish we had been forced to confront.