A poster for Ready Player One that references 1999's scifi flick The Matrix.
Image: Warner Bros.

Ready Player One is set to hit theaters soon, a film that’s gotten a mixed reception so far (you can read our review here). The virtual world of pure imagination that director Steven Spielberg has created differs from Ernest Cline’s original novel, but one of those changes has created, or rather enhanced, a major problem—if everyone in the story is totally obsessed with pop culture, why don’t we see any of it made after 2018?

The Ready Player One novel is all about a virtual world where nostalgia reigns supreme. A reclusive billionaire hid the key to his fortune at the end of a maze of 1980s pop culture puzzles, leading a huge portion of the planet to become obsessed with the decade, just as he was. From the book:

The only thing Anorak’s Almanac seemed to indicate was that a familiarity with [James] Halliday’s various obsessions would be essential to finding the egg. This led to a global fascination with 1980s pop culture. Fifty years after the decade had ended, the movies, music, games, and fashions of the 1980s were all the rage one again. By 2041, spiked hair and acid-washed jeans were back in style, and covers of hit ‘80s pop songs by contemporary bands dominated the music charts.

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The movie changes things up a bit. In addition to some of the typical ‘80s trappings, like Back to the Future’s DeLorean, you’ve got tons of modern references leading all the way through, well, now. For example, we’ve seen an Injustice: Gods Among Us version of Harley Quinn, Overwatch’s Tracer, and a whole army of Halo’s Master Chiefs, among others. According to co-writer Zac Penn, they chose to forego the “James Halliday’s obsessions run the world” angle for the film and instead made the OASIS a place where everybody indulges in what they think is cool.

“The whole nature of the OASIS is people build their own things in there. So I think that it was pretty easy for us to say ‘Let’s keep the ‘80s references. Let’s make sure that the contest is true to the contest, but the rest of the world should be... everything,’” Penn said.

There are exceptions to this rule, though. For example, director Steven Spielberg said they chose not to include modern Star Wars references because of the ‘80s nostalgia factor (though it’s worth noting he’s said a few contradictory things about the Star Wars situation already). In any case, the new Ready Player One is a mix of old and new—prioritizing films, shows, and games under the Warner Bros. umbrella, of course—which might make the game of “Spot the nerdy thing you like!” a little more fun, but the movie has written itself into a corner.

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On-screen, Ready Player One exists in a world where pop culture completely ended in 2018. There are no original movies, shows, comics, or other forms of entertainment seen in the world of Ready Player One, which takes place about 30 years after our own, that were created after this year. None of the avatars the characters use, none of the countless cameos, not even a mention of any pop culture less than three decades old.

Penn told io9 they considered adding invented future pop culture creations to the movie’s universe, but ultimately decided against it. “I did at one point have a bunch of jokes about Matrix Kids which was, like, a fake TV show. I think I even had a joke about like Titanic 4 which everyone was like ‘Oh, that’s the best Titanic movie,’ but it was too jokey,” he said.

Penn gave two conflicting explanations for the omissions. “Theoretically, they’re in there,” was one of them, indicating pop culture did not die in 2018, just that none of it shows up onscreen. Perhaps that means there are whole Matrix Kids worlds in the OASIS, but the movie’s protagonists are too cool to even mention them, let alone hang out in them. However, this is never addressed in the movie. Expecting the audience to fill in that big of a blank, without even telling them that’s what they’re supposed to be doing, feels more like an excuse than foresight.

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The next explanation was more plausible, at least in terms of the world of the film and what viewers see (or don’t see onscreen. Penn suggested that no new shows/movies/etc. were never added into the OASIS at all because they never actually got made. Penn explained:

There’s an undercurrent in the novel—and there is a scene like this where they talk about how the OASIS kind of ended up stopping pop culture in its tracks a little bit. That basically people stopped creating a lot of new stuff because they’re spending so much time recycling it in the OASIS, which is ironic given what the movie’s about. So I think it’s appropriate in some ways that there’s not, you know, all the great shows from the 2030s which would have just been really distracting.

Given the movie’s premise, this makes a lot more sense—but if nothing new exists because fans have totally stopped creating, then you’re selling short what fandom actually is. Even with the endless reboots and sequels we’re getting nowadays, there’s typically something new in all of them. New characters, different interpretations of the story, and (hopefully) better representation. The fact that the movie features the modern, Paramount version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is proof that OASIS users still value change in their favorite franchises, and would conceivably continue to value it, even after March 2018.

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Ready Player One could have avoided this issue by making up even just a few future movies or TV shows for the OASIS, even stupid ones like Matrix Kids. It also could have gone the way of the book and announced the entire world had become obsessed with the ‘80s and absolutely nothing else, even though that still makes the supposedly boundless virtual world of the story feel incredibly limited. But at least that way, we wouldn’t be forced to make a game of object permanence out of thin air, or live in a virtual world where nothing of value was created after March 2018.

This might be easily ignorable for those just wanting to see a hit parade of nerd culture from the last 30 years, but Ready Player One could have been so much more. All it needed to do was think ahead.