27th Mar2018

Culture Dump #29: ‘Ready Player One’ & the Art of Meta Filmmaking

by Simon Bland


Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One is like a pick and mix bag full of sweets aimed squarely at hungry pop-culture fans. Adapting Ernest Cline’s novel of the same name, the film takes us to a not-too-distant future where humanity has dropped out and plugged into the Oasis, an online VR simulation where anything is possible. Its creator was an 80s-obsessed tech nerd who – shortly before his death – left the keys to his digital kingdom hidden within three geeky Easter eggs, igniting a frantic race-to-the-finish that’ll impact the future of Earth’s digital utopia.

That’s the hook although to be honest, it’s almost secondary. In Ready Player One’s photo-real pixel world 80s pop-culture is the main currency, and for viewers it’s also probably the main reason why you’ll be buying a ticket. From Marty’s DeLorean to the Iron Giant himself, the film is literally packed with references to iconic movies and movie franchises, many of which come directly from Director Steven Spielberg’s own wheelhouse. It’s busy – crazy busy – and at times, verges on being a little too much for your eyes to physically take in.

However at the same time, it’s undeniably satisfying. It’s the contradiction of meta-movies – they’re both the best and worst things ever – selling you something you’ve already bought into whilst disguised as something entirely new. After all, there’s a reason why this small sub-genre of meta-films exists in the first place. Movie fans love it when stories make a nod-and-wink reference to another property whilst in the midst of their own adventure, so why wouldn’t they lap up a fully-fledged feature that specialises in exactly that? It’s a tightrope walk though, one which needs to be treated with care so the crux of the primary story is compelling and not neglected in favour of a quick, selfreferencial win.

Earlier films have successfully dipped their toes into this formula. Robert Zemeckis’s animated mash-up Who Framed Roger Rabbit not only wowed by seamlessly splicing animation with reality back in 1988 but, perhaps more impressively, negotiated a merger between Disney, Warner Bros and Max Fleischer characters – much to the delight of us viewers. 1993’s Arnie movie send-up Last Action Hero did it too, albeit lightly, twisting the genre on its head while taking us on an uncanny trip through popular cinema. Both kept the meta-secondary and achieved relative success, and both had a primary hook strong enough to stop things getting lazy.

Maybe that’s the key. Whether or not fans will feel Ready Player One adheres to this rule too is yet to be seen – perhaps they’ll think its all a little too much. Only time will tell. Whatever the case, it’s clear that movie fans love a little in-joke every now but their love of an original story is just as strong.

Is meta filmmaking good or bad? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!


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