Whether You Like it or Not, ‘Ready Player One’ is Here to Usher in a New Media Era of VR Technology
It’s the cinematic event of the season and the most anticipated release of 2018, yet Ready Player One is already being slammed by critics. And it’s not for any of the reasons you may think.
Not exactly your average blockbuster, Ready Player One is really more of a new media event, designed to utilize the film medium as a springboard towards a new era of virtual reality integration. It’s an ambitious crossover project that has the potential to completely change the entire landscape of both the technology and entertainment industries, creating a medium all its own. However, rather than embracing a film which has long been pegged as the movie that will usher in a new era of VR, many are taking aim at Ready Player One’s nostalgic images and seemingly endless set of 1980s references, claiming that director Steven Spielberg is proliferating a supposedly exclusionist agenda.
Sure, it’s an argument that can be made depending on your vantage point, but it’s also, perhaps, the most destructive lens through which to view Ready Player One and its potential impact on the future of technology and entertainment.
For anyone who has yet to see the trailer (or read the Ernest Cline novel of the same name), Ready Player One is a futuristic tale set in a dystopian 2044, where protagonist Wade Watts, along with a large chunk of the population, spends the majority of his time in the OASIS, a VR universe that has captivated the attentions of an entire generation. Allegorical in nature, Ready Player One, which hits theaters nationwide on March 29 (in select cities March 28), is a visual feast that has the unique ability to cross promote VR technology and emerging hardware, which is why there was some idea that reviews would mostly be favorable, maybe even to a fault. Instead, critics are taking aim at the Ready Player One’s appeal to a white male audience, rather than examining plot points or cinematic execution, which spells disaster for a film that offers a potential trickle down unlike any before it.
Unlike traditional films, Ready Player One is being held to a different standard, tasked with doubling as a launching pad for VR technology. In this case, box office success, and recouping an estimated $175-million production budget, is only one metric of valuation, as Ready Player One potentially holds a major economic windfall for adjacent industries. Suddenly, blending media and altering perceptions is’t enough.
Never before has a movie carried such lofty expectations, and responsibility, for its effects on society and the economy beyond the box office, which is why some were forecasting glowing reviews for Ready Player One. But in the wake of Gamergate, pushing the boundaries of technology and entertainment are supposedly no longer sufficient, even if it equates to billions of dollars in revenue for the tech and gaming companies that have invested heavily into the growth and distribution of VR titles and hardware.
Ready Player One, which has the ability to be a groundbreaking game changer, is not only being judged on a new standard of technological and cinematic merit, but also on its acceptance and inclusion of new social norms and mores. And it’s entirely too large a burden for one film to carry.
It is true. The protagonist of Ready Player One is a young, white, American male who is obsessed with 80s pop culture. But what relevance do gender, race, and nationality really have in a non-binary virtual world where players customize avatars to accentuate features of their choosing? If anything, Ready Player One, and the VR medium, levels the playing field for the under represented, placing all participants on common ground. And that’s just one of the many appealing features of virtual reality that Ready Player One hopes to propagate.
At its core, the VR medium, which, for now, is mainly focused on gaming applications, is rooted in escapism and fantasy. It possesses so much potential impact on contemporary society, not to mention the stock market, that there was some idea that Ready Player One would be greeted with a string of positive endorsements, at least for the sake of selling any number of VR headsets, like the new Oculus Go, which was unveiled at last week’s Game Developers Conference, and is expected to retail for $200. And with so many tech dollars (and jobs) riding on the success of the film, there is bound to be some cynicism, but the the Gamergate and equality rhetoric carry little weight here; it’s really more about product placement.
An easy comparison to make is with 1989’s The Wizard, a feature film starring Fred Savage and Jenny Lewis that basically served as a 100-minute commercial to boost sales of Nintendo’s underperforming Power Glove.
Like many early VR headsets, the Power Glove made little impact upon its initial release; even with prime placement in a popcorn movie, the hardware never found mass acceptance in the marketplace and fizzled shortly thereafter (despite a reported 1-million units sold). Avoiding the pitfalls of implementing new hardware in the market is something the producers of Ready Player One, along with every VR company on earth, are hoping to change this time around. However, there there is a silver lining here, as The Wizard also doubled as the debut of “Super Mario Bros. 3,” which went on to be an instant success with gamers, grossing nearly $1.7-billion since its release.
Of course, it’s virtually impossible to make direct sociological comparisons between movies that were released nearly 20 years apart. The current cultural climate is drastically different to pre-Internet, Regan-era America, which accounts for many of the damning reviews of Ready Player One. But in the end, both films were designed to push emerging technology to the forefront of our cultural rhetoric, and that is exactly why Ready Player One can not be ignored or compartmentalized into the gaming niche. This is a film that is destined to reshape the concept of multimedia.
- Dan Shapiro
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