Ready Player One and the Nostalgia Trap

First of all: Shrek is comedic genius. More importantly, however, the 2001 movie is an excellent example of this week’s topic: nostalgia and intertextuality.

In the above scene, during the exchange between the Gingerbread Man and Lord Farquaad regarding the Muffin Man, there’s no real joke—except for maybe the overdramatized performances. No, the comedy comes from something called intertextuality. You may have covered the concept in 10th grade english, but in case you’ve forgotten, it’s really just the connection between whatever you’re viewing and some other work. The dialogue in the Shrek scene is funny because of the gravitas and context (an interrogation scene) of this ordinary nursery rhyme we’re all familiar with.

In this way, intertextuality has a lot in common with nostalgia; it relies on our familiarity with something else—and that’s all nostalgia is, warm feelings toward something we remember.

Furthermore, you may have noticed that this sort of intertextuality and emphasis on nostalgia has been prevalent in movies lately. There’s always been movies that have delivered the things we love to the silver screen, but it didn’t really become institutionalized in Hollywood until 2007’s Transformers. This was a turning point for the industry. The next year saw the launch of the most successful film franchise ever, a franchise based on children’s comics dating back to the 1960s (or technically 1939, but eh). Every subsequent year in theaters, there’s been a remake or sequel to some golden-age Hollywood blockbuster (think Star Wars or Ghostbusters), and there’s a dozen more movies made about the stories and characters and even merchandise that we already loved.

Generally, audiences have been OK with this. After all, nostalgia by definition produces positive feelings. Theaters are simply giving people what they want.

One of the best examples of this is The LEGO Movie. Already garnering some nostalgia points by basing itself on a popular children’s toy, The LEGO Movie doubles down by incorporating an endless supply of pop-culture characters from movies everyone loves.

Sing Street

Nostalgia isn’t just utilized in blockbuster, family films. It’s in indie flicks too, like the Best Picture nominated Lady Bird and the coming-of-age movie Sing Street. Both of these films move beyond period settings by frequent and heavy cultural references from their respective decades. In this way, they both achieve a level of nostalgia. 

The Force Awakens is infamous for this. The story, aesthetic, and themes of Episode VII were expertly crafted to circumvent the Prequels and deliver that Original Trilogy nostalgic feeling. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, another huge blockbuster, went a different direction. Taking the bare minimum premise, along with a few tips of the hat, it strikes out and makes its own original series. Both of these movies, heavily nostalgic, worked like gangbusters.

stranger things

And let’s not forget Stranger Things. The Netflix original series (pending legal review) demonstrates a special kind of intertextuality called pastiche. It mimics the tone and style of 80s sci-fi and coming-of-age stories in order to subconsciously woo its viewers and achieve maximum nostalgia. As you may recall, it was quite popular.

Skip to 1:03. There’s an example of intertextuality that doesn’t work quite as much. Why does he say his name so weird? Is that suppose to be a reference to something? The scene plays out as an obvious reveal or strange over-acting.


Plenty of other movies have this uneven relationship with intertextuality. Jurassic World was passable, but the T-Rex reveal at the end was underwhelming at best. The Ghostbusters reboot was trash. And the Transformers franchise is famously bad. What is it about these movies? They’re just as nostalgic and intertextual as the movies above—what did they do wrong?

The answer lies in how they went about their intertextuality. There are three main ways movies can fail when it comes to nostalgia:

  1. Drawing attention to it. Intertextuality should flow; it should be hidden in the medium. Don’t turn to the camera and say, “Hey, we got PacMan in our movie!” It should mostly work on a subconscious level so you hardly know you have these warm, nostalgic feelings bubbling up inside.
  2. Not being creative. As with all art, you gotta be creative. You can’t have an 80s themed thief use a Rubik’s Cube to knock-out the guards and it automatically be funny. Do something witty with the Rubik’s Cube—or avoid Rubik’s Cubes all together.
  3. Giving in to Golden Age thinking. This is the most important rule; you have to be careful with nostalgia. We all have tendencies to look back on certain times and reminisce or wish we were back there. But we can’t do that—we have to move forward.

Section Break

And then you have Ready Player One.

I’m on the fence about Ready Player One. I’m not ready to put it in either group yet. It’s a Spielberg movie, so you can be confident that it’s well made, that it’s structurally cohesive, and that it’s emotionally resonant. But I’m not so sure about it’s use of intertextuality.

It definitely draws attention to its nostalgic features. But it also has a reason for it all; it makes sense in the universe. Even so, it can still be a little clunky with the references.

It’s also iffy on how creatively it incorporated its intertextual features. There’s one scene I detest where the main character flips through 80s outfits (Prince, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, etc) like television channels. It’s suppose to elicit some reaction from the audience, but it doesn’t get anything. On the other hand, there’s an extended scene in the movie that is directly based on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. And that scene is perfect.

Fortunately the movie avoids the Golden Age pitfall. That’s probably thanks to Spielberg. He doesn’t come at this movie as a cynical cash-grab (he’s doing fine), nor is he vain enough to want to make a movie about the era when he made the culture. No, Spielberg in interviews has sincerely portrayed his fascination with the technology of the world in Ready Player One. It was the virtual reality future that lead him to the source material.

You should go see Ready Player One, you won’t be bored. And you can decide for yourself how it handles its nostalgic material and how good of a movie it is. But keep that in mind for each subsequent movie you see. Don’t just clap when you see something you recognize. Ask, is this making the movie better?


Add yours →

  1. Cabot Daniel Huffstutter April 6, 2018 — 7:10 PM

    Great article! I’ve always loved how the Guardians of the Galaxy series use nostalgic references (both musically and referentially). Both movies even weave the soundtrack directly into the plot of the movie. The second volume especially makes use of this, as many of the songs, lyrically and musically, bear direct influence on the characters of the movie (Mr. Blue Sky – Yondu; Brandy – Ego; Father and Son – Starman/Yondu).


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