Every once in awhile, a film or another piece of media stumbles across the popular psyche, one that has the capacity to reveal what is truly going on under the surface of the cultural zeitgeist. In this piece, I will not attempt to do a thorough regurgitation of Ready Player One, the latest Spielberg Hollywood CGI-monstrosity of grand escapism, and a PG-13 fun-for-the-whole-family epic. Spielberg has become the mainstay director of Hollywood. His formulaic style is the apotheosis of current culture industry standards, so you can guess as to how the plot of RP1 moves along. Instead, this review will highlight several key themes, both latent and manifest, and conclude that, as a piece of Postmodern media, RP1 encapsulates where our culture is, and where our culture in the West is heading. RP1 is especially important in terms of capturing our unique generational moment: the twilight between our Western world being dominated by the influence of from the Boomers to the influence of Millennials.
The Eternal Boomer
RP1 from the beginning is predicated on a world that has learned to live within the dissonance of contradiction, stagnation, yet it holds faux ideas of “progress” and movement. This is the world of the Post-world war Boomer generation, and a culture that seems to stagnate at the top of the socially dominant Boomer class. In RP1 we have the hallmarks of such a culture: Whig history taken to its absurd conclusions in a globalized virtual reality technological apparatus, one that is tone deaf to the unique cultural and geographic differences around the planet. The culture of the future in RP1, for all its leaps and bounds in technics, seems to be entirely predicated on utilizing virtual reality to LARP the Boomer’s cultural achievements and science fiction/fantasy entertainment tropes. RP1 in fact is “postmodern” in this deafness to real issues of cultural creation, as it is often described by critics as a film that is entirety self-referential and laden with sign-post “Easter eggs” (a main theme of the film being a hunt for an Easter egg that can control the whole VR universe known as “Oasis”, a cheap shout-out to the band). RP1 is a collage, a hodgepodge of appropriated tropes, references, and any themes Spielberg-as-Boomer happened to include in the film; one giant CGI bricolage of culture industry references. There is no sensitivity to time or place in terms of each cultural milieu, everything is jumbled together in a threadbare tapestry of signifiers from previous generations.
This is an important point as the film is indicative of the Boomer dominated culture industry. It used to be that as each successive generation passed into adulthood, culture would cater to whatever generation was next in line. In this equilibrium, the fires of novelty and originality in each generation goes onward, only to be hosed down by the cold indifference of formulaic cultural repetition, and finally buried by the shovel of mass consumerism. However, RP1 shows that in our own time, and in the future, the post-Boomer generations, from Gen-x, to Gen-y and younger, are robbed of this cultural vitality by the one monolithic global-cultural Boomer™. It was Boomer™, after all, who colonized the globe with mass-westernized culture to begin with. Now younger generations are great appropriators, ray-tracers, and collage-scavengers of past sub-cultures and styles, rather than formulating newer and more ingenious forms of cultural expression themselves. Every VR addict in RP1, regardless of age, basks in the tapestry of characters, references, and lived-fantasies entirely stuck in the 1980s and 90s. Vaporwave themes are no longer about rebellion, techno-tribality and general contrarianism, but mass consumable escapism. Of course, these themes of fractured heroism are there in a more pale and sickly form, but apart from an evil corporation trying to take over Oasis to move the plot along, the main focal point of the film seems to be its inexhaustible ability to bring up and list off various images and references to other pieces of media, ones that Boomer™ largely had a hand in creating.
There seems to be no shame in this, as every character in the film embraces this fact rather than question the glaringly apparent social and cultural stagnation. There is one specific scene in watching the film that made this apparent: The main protagonist Parzival has a date to a Vaporwave 80s dance hall with the main love interest/manic pixie girl Artemis (because what would young-adult literature be without a meaningless romance and sterile reinterpretations of ancient mythological figures). In trying to find an outfit for the date, he tries on various clothing that references 80s sci-fi and action films, to only come up with an outfit from Buckaroo Bonzai across the 8th Dimension. Parzival’s best friend Aech tells him to just “be yourself” to which Parzival replies “but this is myself!”. This pantomime of a character from a sci-fi romance in the 80s is the personality in-toto of Parzival, as everything in the world of Oasis is teeming with such signposts that replaces genuine inner exploration and individuation. From Akira’s motorcycle, to The Iron Giant, to The Shining (made by a director with much more credibility, originality, and talent than Spielberg could ever hope to match) various 80s videogames, etc. nothing can escape the culture industry world of Boomer™, not even one’s most private dreams in virtual hyper-reality.
The flatness of modern mass-media films
The saving grace of the film's hole-riddled plot line was that it did not veer off too strongly into the political. Apart from the usual appeals to diversity, egalitarian progress, and some latent Sandersesque debt forgiveness near the end (the evil corporation Innovative Online Industries (IOI) puts people in VR debt-slave pods to work off what they owe by doing labour in Oasis, a system that is ended by the main protagonists), the film’s political messaging is hidden, and not easily decipherable. I would say that this is a feature of the Spielberg Formula, and his clever, albeit crass, avoidance of the political to appeal to a wider audience. In today’s day and age however, this avoidance is a breath of fresh air considering the near endless onslaught of the myopic Hollywood prog-concensus at every level of media.
RP1, while being deaf to overt political themes, seems to be deaf to the implications of its universe in general. Nothing in the film seems to distract from the main line plot, and furthermore, the plot itself seems to be a foil for its vast array of nerd culture appropriations. For instance, Parzival’s parents are dead and he must live with his histrionic aunt and her abusive boyfriend. It is a common trope of course, every comic book hero has their parents out of the picture from the outset, for they must be separate from their peers, and on a more archetypal level, it allows the hero space to live in a rootless Peter Pan fantasy world. His aunt and her boyfriend are killed in an explosion by IOI, and we learn that Artemis’ father died as a penniless wage slave in the debt pods, but nothing more is developed from these details. It is as if everything is just a plot-filler. Everything about RP1 seems to share this lack of depth, and sleek linearity; Oasis is used primarily for distraction and fantasy, not for any other purpose that is inherently artistic, life-affirming or even creative. The characters themselves are placeholders for the most basic tropes of nerd culture, from the outcast pixie girl, to the nerd with a noble heart, the big best friend, and the wise sage-creator. Spielberg and every other action movie director has committed untold celluloid crimes against the greatest patterned-stories deep within the psyche of humanity, replicating a bloodless and stale hero’s journey ad infinitum. The breadth of original scholarship in the field of comparative mythology by the likes of the almighty new age sages such as Joseph Campbell, Mercia Eliade and Carl Gustav Jung has been thoroughly processed, hung out to dry, then grinded into the thin imitation-gruel known as the Meta-plot formula of the Hollywood culture industry.
There is also an element that is never touched upon in RP1, but nevertheless diverges from other futurist fantasy worlds: an odd recognition of the limits to single-minded technological development, or the element of social realism.
In the world of RP1, nobody is seen living in a complete paradise of a high-tech utopia that futurists promise. The populations of the future are the enframed, alienated, and deracinated proles Heidegger warned us we would become by not recognizing the inherent danger of technological development and its central discourse of enframing. America is a desolate and scattered array of tightly cramped cities and low-living trailer park complexes built up like Favela skyscrapers. Here the third-worldization of the future American heartland is just a fact of existence. So much so that Parzival even comments that things have gotten so bad that people just pass through existence, even in a rare moment of insight acknowledging the dangers of techno-escapism. He then remarks that no one “has the will to fix anything or make things better” as the camera pans across the vast arid landscape filled with the ghastly greyish bricolage of end-times western humanity: the opening scenes where Parzival climbs down from his aunt’s double-wide is reminiscent of the infamous “sky coffin apartments” in Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, where corporate technocrats encouraged the proletarian classes to eat and socialize in the factories, and only go home to sleep in rows of coffin apartments (I have explored this motif elsewhere).
In fact, no one seems to really mind because the world of Oasis is all anyone truly cares about. Thus, the hopes and wish-fulfillment fantasies of the plebs are all satiated by VR technology, despite the very real elements of social and cultural desolation. There is so much development of plot that could have occurred over the course of this two hours plus film, for example: more exposition on just how exactly things declined in such a way, but instead, the everydayness of trash-world rust-belt America is just that, the everyday, banal reality that serves as an empty contrast to Oasis. This leads us to the core of RP1’s seductive quality to begin with, the passing of the torch to millennials….
As I have mentioned above, RP1 is a world of contradictions that are laced together to fit a grabastic and multifarious whole, a bloated, splayed and sinewy whole, much like our own multicultural liberal post-war society. The main catalyst for the film is the creator of Oasis, the (deceased in the film apart from having all his memories hauntologically saved in a digital library) recluse, Asperger tech genius James Halliday, a Boomer with the heart of a child. In Oasis, His character is named Anorak, and he serves as the wise sage who announces the contest that will determine the fate of Oasis, the figure that Parzival has always looked up to. Halliday represents the merging of dissonance and order from the outset. He is the one that will inspire the main hero to go on his Joseph Campbell-themed quest to secure the fate of the (virtual) world, and restore order, yet Halliday has set into motion this existential and social uncertainty brought on by technological advancements to begin with.
We are given a Hidden view into Halliday’s life due to the future transhumanist technology of external memory storage, on display in a virtual library for all to see in Oasis. In these memory reels, we can see a stand-in for the Boomer generation writ-large: a petulant and aloof creator and guiding hand in the techno-bureaucratic future, that just so happens to live in the world of his own comfort zone; his childhood and teen years. Halliday creates the futuristic world of Oasis, yet his vision only extends as far as his generation, and by a virtual every other generation. Halliday gives a clue as to finding the first key during the death-race, saying that he just wished he could “go backwards, as fast as we can”. This is an odd contradiction seeing as how the same man who created a life-changing brave new virtual world wishes to live in a previous, and more simpler time, like most of the Boomer generation, swallowing the razor-sharp pill of realizing the lacuna between their so-called ideas and the reality that they have created, is a pill too far. This so-called “perfect” time never extends as far back as the 1950s, and in this case, rarely farther than the 1980s. Halliday seemingly does not grapple with any of the implications of Oasis, but instead marches forward, which leads us to the hidden political theme of RP1 that matters the most, that being total and unabated freedom.
To understand why I am labelling this the Gnostic freedom of Oasis, one must understand the subtle cultural dynamic that is taking place: the representation of Boomers is seen as the wise and guiding hand, one that is pure, child-like in all their hopes for a “better” future, which is just a utilitarian pleasure-economy in the end. The Boomer never contemplates what this new virtual freedom might bring about in terms of profound changes to human existence, just that it must be done. In the film, it seems all the members of the younger Boomer generations and Generation X are portrayed as soulless capitalistic materialists, like the CEO of IOI and main antagonist Nolan Sorrento, who will stop at nothing to seek control of Oasis. Never is there a mention on how the Eternal Boomer created such an apathetic and materialistic generation in the first place.
From the beginning of the film, the world of Oasis is presented as an infinite pleasure paradise where you can “be anything you dreamed of being.” Of course, here we can see the truly Gnostic message hidden in a metric-ton of Hollywood big-budget blockbuster films. In Oasis, transgenderism, trans-speciesism and a whole variety of post-human and fantasy aspirations are realized. If you are some incel from /r9k/, you can be the Trap anime cat-girl you always wanted to be, ditto for the furries, bronies, tumblr soul-bonders, and various degenerate sub-cultures that are punished by the confines of reality. Here everyone is never a self in the classical sense of subjectivity, but a ball of pixilated potentiality waiting to be realized. Whilst the outside world is cruel, hard, and reeks of the demiurge that is politics, Oasis is a tech-metaphysical pantheon to the human imagination, albeit a very limited, pop-culture infected, and terribly small imagination.
The Boomer Halliday must hand off control of the virtual grail-egg to Parzival, the representative of the Millennials, as soon as he wins the game. The microcosm of the macro millennial is the one who truly “gets” what Halliday was trying to achieve. Halliday greets the hero in (of course) his childhood room filled with early video games, comics, and plastic crap strewn about; on a side note, keep in mind that this scene and others represents Spielberg committing an act of culture-industry onanism. Spielberg creates the culture we long to feel that pang of nostalgia over, and in turn he creates a post-modern film that references his own creations repeatedly. Not even Terentino as a director could reach this staggering zenith of latent narcissism.
Back to the main point: Parzival is given the option to press the big red button in the room that can destroy Oasis or choose to be the “real guardian of the realm”, to which he of course chooses the latter. Parzival, instead of coming to terms with the fact that Kaczynski was right, and any sane person would gladly destroy such a soul-enslaving abomination that is the mass-distraction apparatus of Oasis, gives a speech at the end about humanity finally becoming “responsible” with Oasis, so long as they shut it down on Tuesdays and Thursdays. What is clear in this is that the naïve, and in turn destructive, idealism of the Boomer will be rinsed through a quasi-Hegelian dialectic of sorts and find its ultimate perfection in the tech-savvy and “forward thinking” idealism of the Millennial. The Millennial has no inherent identity apart from what is consumed, and what better to consume than the mainstream nerd culture implanted in the zeitgeist by Boomers. Millennials can live out the fantasy of total freedom, free of the consequences that come with technology and the destruction of traditional values in the mind of the Boomer. While Gen-x became apathetic, greedy materialist wage-slaves, the Millennials will carry on the torch for the Boomer, atomize and globalize themselves, while destroying the “problematic” aspects of our Boomer-world. We even have media Boomer Bugmen calling for the karmic cleansing fires of the future Millennial hordes being handed the keys of western civilization.
In a sense, RP1 embodies the Boomer handing off their end of history vision, and all the cold-blooded philosophic implications it entails, to the Millennials. The Millennial generations are the perfect end-product of inner-psychic colonization by Western Boomer ideals. The most telling scene is a brief image of Halliday’s funeral, where two liberty coins that say “freedom” cover his eyes. This rapacious, contradictory, and ultimately unsustainable worship of “freedom” constitutes the soul of the international Boomer, and the Boomer’s vision itself that has been infused into the psychic bloodstream of the Millennials. How fitting that these are liberty coins, for modern mass tech-globalization is simultaneously the mass Americanization of the world. I highly doubt that Spielberg caught on to such dark symbolism.
RP1 represents what Baudrillard and others foresaw in modern late-capitalism and the technocratic over-civilization of the modern world: when capital has nowhere to go, and every stitch of the world embodying the “real” has been conquered and come to its knees; capital has nowhere to flow except inside the virtual. So too we see in RP1, like capital, the culture industry invades the virtual world in tandem. We see this in the way labour has become wholly virtual in RP1, and in the very essence of the virtual universe itself being made up of non-stop consumable nerd culture. Nerd culture itself is a glaring example of late capitalism, because to be a “nerd” no longer requires skill (or being a STEM-cel) in a certain area, but to simply out-consume and out-reference the other nerds.
In RP1 every single trace of a metaphysical referent is all but absent, in fact the very questions of the virtual polluting and blurring the lines of the real never seem to be addressed with any depth. Here there is only self-reference built atop sedimentary layers of references and empty cultural signs that have imploded into the real more than they ever have before. There is only one sense, the visual, that allows us to peer into virtuality, whereas in Oasis all of the senses, and subjectivity itself is hooked into a never-ending onslaught of total and polysemous media interaction. There is no art, no God, no corridor of profound meaning in the virtual that is not reified with cheap and unexciting sci-fi and fantasy meta-narratives. In other words, we only see a vast emptied ocean, a million times wider and more barren then the Aral Sea, of bland cultural signifiers. Current Millennial audiences only know of this arid desert of the hyper-real, and therefore can only relate to references upon references of pop-nerd culture. This goes beyond a simple post-modern homage of the present, but it is an epitaph to the death of a shared Western culture at the end of history.
RP1 is not simply a cheesy Sci-Fi movie that amounts to Hollywood patting itself on the back for keeping an eternal yoke on the neck of Western culture (it is this, but more deeply.) RP1 is the first sign, a canary in the coal mine for Western culture as a whole: Millennials no longer feel mythos or the metaphysical, or even the novel/creative in art flow through their collective unconscious. It is as if Spielberg is mocking his audience in exposing the emptiness of their being, how they consume nothing but trash, so it is trash that is lifted into the forefront of supposedly daring and important cultural moments. Just think of all the scribblings by Bugmen/Bugwomen espousing the so-called “importance” of Harry potter as a metaphor for any current political issue they happen to hate-tweet about.
After all, RP1 is tailor-made for the Bugman, for it is the Bugman that must take control of the reigns of power from their Boomer masters. The same Redditors that wax philosophic about star-wars in a cannabinoid haze, who breeze through college by taking humanities courses and learn all the in-vogue, bourgeois, middle-class leftist political opinions, who coast by existence without a stitch of yearning in their hearts for something truly compelling or spiritual, etc. These one in the same Bugmen are the pre-destined future inhabitants of VR-tech bliss-abyss apparatuses. Furthermore, they will be the ones crafting our future hyper-reality, and if RP1 is any indication of what is to come, it will be a bleak future indeed.