Welcome to the latest episode of the Cultural Conversation podcast.
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s pop-culture busting novel Ready Player One has a more than overt reference to ‘God in the Machine’, a conceptual fusion of spirituality with near-future advancements in technology which suggests our models of worship are changing and evolving alongside how we interact with entertainment, media and the wider online world.
That phrase sounds a little similar to ‘God From the Machine’, better known as deus ex machina in fiction in the original Latin, which has emerged as a symbolic description over the years in narrative terms whereby the resolution of a plot comes at the hand of a character or object, equivalent in relative terms to a God, which quickly and unexpectedly solves the insoluble problem faced by the protagonists.
This doesn’t equate directly to Ready Player One, because the deus ex machina is coded into the very DNA of the entire concept behind that fictional world; James Halliday, the programmer and creator of the OASIS, developed a world he wanted to give back to the people once they found him, his soul essentially, deep inside the hidden corners of the machine.
Ready Player One really does feel like the pop-culture culmination of modern entertainment since the advent of Star Wars. Festooned with references, characters and trademarks from dozens of well-known properties from everything cinematic through to the video game world, Steven Spielberg delivers the ultimate expression of why we digest media, and possibly a glimpse into a world we could all be heading towards.
Ernest Cline delivered a remarkable confection of a novel back in 2011, certainly in pop-culture terms. Ready Player One crammed almost every single reference point since the late 1970’s across half a dozen mediums into a novel which, ultimately, told a fairly relatable David vs Goliath story set in a near-futuristic dystopia. It was a piece of work which seemed to operate like Marmite; for everyone taken in by its wide-eyed engagement with particularly 1980’s geek and nerd culture, someone else would respond that Cline’s prose was awful and the novel was a mess of winks, references and incohesive plotting which worked more like a gimmick than a piece of fiction. Wherever you stood on the spectrum, Ready Player One seems to have always been a polarising experience.
Which made the idea of a film adaptation even more intriguing, especially given Cline’s novel swiftly arrived in the hands of Spielberg. In many respects, this brought Cline’s work full circle, as Spielberg alongside filmmakers such as George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis, essentially created not just the cinematic blockbuster but the combination of pop-culture escapism and mainstream entertainment that drove the core of Cline’s novel.
Films such as Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, not to mention Back to the Future, which especially factors into Ready Player One on several levels, all remain the key cultural touchstones for Western audiences thirty or forty years on. Spielberg has arguably been the most successful purveyor of family escapism in cinema, blending skilled craft and an innate understanding of what audiences will connect to. And connections, ultimately, are what drive his adaptation of Ready Player One.
Social media has taken control of the world. Almost all of us have a smartphone and we’re wired into either Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat etc… or all of them. The open communication of the internet has made us desperate for ultimate, constant connectivity. It’s an idea that across this decade, as social media has fully taken hold over Western society, the movies have begun exploring.
Inevitably, and perhaps appropriately, cinema has largely taken social media to be a new and dangerous playground. Much as the technology is used by people of all ages (yes, even some of the elderly), apps, games and innovations remain primarily the province of the young and impressionable. Social media is attractive, not just for the fact you can build a virtual profile that presents a picture of who you would like the world to *believe* you are, but it provides a gateway to thrills and social taboos. Hence why adults are consistently reminded, and parents are scaremongered, into believing social media is a corrupting evil that will warp and destroy the minds of our children.
Filmmakers on the whole don’t quite see it that way. Many seem to consider social media to be one enormous, conceptual cautionary tale, sometimes fused a with futuristic morality play. An entire sub-genre now exists of pictures often starring, and certainly aimed at, the young, but to classify them specifically as horror films—as some have—does them a slight disservice. Those directors and writers who are interested in the pervasive effect social media has on our lives seem more keen to portray the internet, and all its myriad labryinthian contexts, as something that will only destroy us if we misuse it or refuse to pay it enough respect.