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Posts tagged ‘sci fi’

TIME PILOTS – commentary on Ernest Cline’s novel “Ready Player One”

readyoneReady Player One author Ernest Cline probably did not select the 1980s as the nostalgia motif of his novel simply because it happened to be the era of his youth. In current pop culture, Stranger Things, IT, 24K Magic, and plenty of other manifestations keep making the ‘80s the decade that cannot be terminated. Decades foregone, do today’s Gen-Zers ever feel false-nostalgia for Marcus Welby or The Macarena? There is something specifically poignant about the ‘80s that Cline thought would resonate with multi-generational readers.

Teenage Wade spends his days and nights memorizing the dialogue of John Hughes movies, listening to New Wave song files, and, most importantly, mastering classic arcade video games like Pac Man and Tempest. The year is 2044. Teen character obsessions with ’80s pop culture in Ready Player One is more than pacifying entertainment in the age of a catastrophic global energy crisis. Their avatar identities connect to virtual reality through a visor and motion-controlling gloves and hunt for treasure in the vast network called the OASIS, where people can become anybody they want or visit any place in the imaginable universe. Hunters occupationally plunder VR worlds for currency credits, fighting skill points, magic weapons and clues to the location of a trillion dollar prize. Halliday, a genius and recluse who designed the OASIS, has died and willed its ownership to the hunter who first solves a series of puzzles leading to a final figurative Easter Egg hidden in the lore of Halliday’s own ‘80s pop culture obsessions. The contest requires intense familiarity with Halliday’s favorite books, cartoons, and videogames from own teenage years, and has led to a global ‘80s craze fifty years beyond. As Wade, isolated in his personal hideout, describes, “Spiked hair and acid washed jeans are back in style.” He means what is in style amongst his peers inside the idealized and abstract universe of the Oasis.

In the America of 2044, climate change, wars and corporatism have reduced most of the population to depressed scavengers. Teenagers like Wade have been forced to abandon most of what we might consider a normal life of school, friendships, sex, and stepping outside. He lives a lonely existence in a vertical trailer park ghetto. But in the Oasis, Wade’s anonymous avatar, Parzival, is becoming the most famous Gunter [Egg + Hunter] in the world, relying on his mastery of ’80 pop culture to pursue the trail of Halliday’s arcane clues. The bulk of the novel follows Parzival, along with his team of Gunter comrades known popularly as the High Five, solving Halliday’s posthumous challenges left inside elaborate movie and videogame recreations. Their nemesis is IOI, a greedy corporation plotting to control the Oasis with a force of avatar clone armies trained to win the contests through cheating, extortion, and real world murder.

If this plot structure – a gang of troubled but precocious young people combine their expertises to defeat the schemes of an unscrupulous adult enterprise – sounds to you like Goonies, or Whiz Kids or other ‘80s era media artifacts, say Uno!

A recent article in the blog Vulture asked in its title Why Are We Still Obsessed With The ‘80s? Some of their answers were practical, such as what we see on our screens and hear through our earbuds is coming from media creatives in their 40s and 50s who have an affinity for the pop culture of their youth. Also the time traveling powers of YouTube and Facebook have mid-lifers introducing children, younger siblings, or nieces and nephews to the pop culture that populated their childhoods. So maybe the resiliency of the ‘80s is a phenomenon of shared multi-generational touchstones more available through current technology. As Vulture commented, “When one generation influences a second (and a third) generation in this way, there’s a pop cultural ripple effect that keeps on rippling… The pop culture we grew up on? You couldn’t ignore it if you tried.”

On a more theoretical level, Vulture suggested the tendency of media creatives to delve into the ‘80s as a means to connect the “now” to an era taking first steps into a transformative technological age. Nostalgia mining always offers an escape to idealized memories of youth, but the 1980s is the last full decade before the internet became an avatar for human interaction. In other words, maybe the reason why we keep trying to relive the ‘80s is because our computers have disconnected us from an authentic shared culture.

Ab ovo, Halliday’s Easter egg hunt. The futuristic odyssey specifically revisits a past in which technology was capturing young people’s desire for adventure before the internet supplanted real human interaction. We have to remind ourselves in the midst of Cline’s story that the High Five’s swashbuckling teen teamwork is all an illusion. In real life, the High Five buddies reside in remote parts of the world and do not even know what their comrades or competitors look like. Winning inside the Oasis – just as all commerce, politics, and notoriety of the day – is just a fantasy. There are not really trillions of dollars at stake in finding Halliday’s egg, just trillions of zeros and ones. The youths of ’44 have no actual participative culture of their own. It was Halliday’s dying desire to bequeath them his antique pop culture passions in a way that would stimulate actual interaction, something the inventor of the Oasis felt personally responsibility for ruining. Halliday’s contest is his last chance at real human connection, ironically after his death.

We might also say that Halliday is Ernest Cline’s avatar. Both the Easter Egg Hunt and Cline’s dystopian aesthetic are respective expressions of loss over something the ‘80s represented, a lost era of social engagement. Halliday filled his OASIS with references and facsimiles of the ‘80s culture he loved, then willed a contest which could only be won by someone who cared enough to love his same interests. Likewise, Cline, in writing Ready Player One offers readers a chance to connect or reconnect with his ’80s fondnesses. Of science fiction, another author, William Gibson (credited with reviving the SF genre in 1980s), once said, “It doesn’t resonate back from the future, it resonates out of modern history.” Cline’s sci-fi depicts a future that still searches for something we are missing out of our modern history. Both Cline, the creator, and his creator avatar, Halliday, seek to reboot real human-to-human communication.

rp13As for the Ready Player One motion picture adaptation, despite excellent special effects, it misses the chance to visualize the vast possibilities of the Oasis so inventively depicted by Cline. Also, the game of our hero Gunters using their intellectual powers to solve Halliday’s cryptic puzzles is given secondary treatment to fighting and action sequences. Not to say the action sequences are not well executed. In particular, a recreation of the movie The Shining as the setting for one of Halliday’s challenges provides something amazing on film that a novel could never do. Still, a disappointing shortcoming is the movie’s inability to capture the literal aspects of the Oasis as simulacrum, to understand the world’s fixation with videogames in this future as a product of desolation. Overtrying to be hopeful, the movie steps around an important theme in the novel, which explores something dark about our modern society and the mass-loneliness advance technology is creating.

Social commentary in the novel is deftly weaved through exciting action challenges. The book also succeeds in making our protagonist (avatar) Wade/Parzival both socially awkward and cool. The last third of the novel avails too much deus ex machina, and an anticipated final encounter feels rushed and superficial after the novel’s earlier insightfulness (Spoiler Alert: Only reality is real). Overall, Ready Player One is an electric read, the experience of a complete future universe both exciting and tragic.

Media Log 01.17.2012

50/50 : Gordon-Levitt/Rogen

(cinema) 50/50, d. Jonathan Levine, 2011. Can you take a movie seriously that starts with the line, “I can’t have cancer, Doc. I recycle”, even if it’s a comedy? What if  it’s a comedy about cancer? The script for 50/50 attempts to straddle a fence between being a wise cracking comedy about a young guy facing death, and an insightful drama about a young guy facing death. While Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the young cancer patient adequately, he isn’t given much to do. When his mother, his best friend and his girlfriend all react in different ways badly to his condition, Cancer Boy comes off a bit blase to me. I don’t think he even looks that sick. But most of the characters in this movie aren’t very convincing. The girlfriend’s shallowness seems forced, all the doctors wouldn’t be so robotically insensitive, the perky new psychologist couldn’t possibly be so badly trained, and don’t tell me the mother would have actually said “I smothered him too much because I loved him.” The problem with 50/50 isn’t with any of the actors or even with trying to milk comedy out of a sad subject. I think Seth Rogen as the funny, knucklehead best friend who has no filter is the best character. But, on the whole, 50/50’s dialogue and characters just aren’t genuine enough for laughs or tears. When Gordon-Levitt’s character finally has an emotional catharsis near the end it’s too much too late… (television) Star Trek DS9, PROGRESS, S1-Ep.14. Major Kira, assigned to evacuate a Bajoran Moon for mining, confronts a stubborn farmer and an ethical dilemma about repeating the abuses perpetrated by the Cardasians on the Bajoran people. To this point in the show I have found Nana Visitor’s performances as Kira to be annoyingly at full volume. For once her over-excitement seems to have collided with a good script. I like Kira in this one and the turmoil she has with hating and having to do what’s right. Brian Keith as the irascible but wise old farmer is great too… The Golden Girls, BLANCHE’S LITTLE GIRL, S3-Ep.14. Blanche’s estranged daughter shows up after three years with a fiance and a lot of pounds heavier. When it turns out the fiance is a mean creep, Blanche is torn between protecting her daughter’s interest and butting into her life. This one is a better comedy episode than it is a drama, especially Sophia’s fat jokes about the daughter. It’s a little weird that the Goldies get so ticked off about the fiance making fat jokes when they were being just as mean.

Media Log: 01.14.2012

(cinema) Drive, d. Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011. I just watched Drive for the second time. On closer inspection I figured out that if this movie with the same L.A. crime underworld story had been edited too fast and too furious and amped with a soundtrack of Kidd Rock anthems it would have come off as total trash. As one gangster character who used to produce low-budget films says, “One critic called them [movies] European. I thought they were shit.” For Drive the filmmakers adopted highly stylized and deliberate editing with brilliant, catchy, 1980s sounding synth music are these are the two elements that hide all the flaws in this movie and make it so captivating. As produced, Drive is brilliant in its turns between the actors subtleties and violent action excesses. Drive is the best movie I saw in 2011 and goes on a list of great of great American films. ๏ ๏ ๏ ½… The Mothman Prophesies, d. Mark Pellington, 2002. Richard Gere is a recently widowed reporter who inexplicably wakes up in a West Virginia town four hundred miles from home. He starts encountering townspeople who are having their own paranormal encounters with a moth-like man who whispers warnings of a looming catastrophe. Mothman is a successfully weird and suspenseful thriller that never tries to over-explain its phenomena. We are never told exactly what is going on between life in the town and whatever dimension the Mothman comes from, nor is it resolved why reporter id dragged into it. I like that these mysteries stay in tact. I like that we don’t really know how much of what is transpiring is just shadow of the reporter’s unresolved trauma. Is he imagining everything? Is he Mothman? In the end it’s a well acted drama about the reporter trying to move beyond his tragic past. But this is a false ending as we find out there really is tragedy about to collapse on the town. Apparently the story is adapted from an investigation into a real incident in 1968 where a West Virginia bridge collapsed and killed forty-six people. That part of it may be factual but it didn’t make for a better ending. One other issue with this film is the terrible casting of Laura Linney as the town cop and love interest for Gere. I love Laura Linney in everything else. Would Elizabeth Taylor have made a good Barney Fife just because she was a good  actress? If the movie had got its priorities straightened out it could have been a modern classic.๏ ๏ ๏… (television) Star Trek DS9, THE STORYTELLER. O’Brien and Bashir visit a village of idiotically superstitious Bajorian yokels who think only O’Brien can save their village from the wrath of a giant cloud entity that looks a lot like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters. In an equally idiotic subplot, a teenage ambassador, negotiating for the future of her own village, gets the best advice from the only other kids on DS9, Jake Sisco and his Ferengi chum Nog. This episode plays like it was written for and by children. Not the worst of the first seasons episodes, but quite irritating.