Ernest Cline and Missed Opportunities


I was scrolling through Twitter recently, and as much as typing that sentence makes me shudder, I have to admit it yielded something interesting.

Someone had posted a short clip from the Ryan Reynolds action-comedy film Free Guy, a movie about one of the thousands of background A.I. characters in an open-world video game who realizes that he can become something more than just a stock figure in his world, and is catapulted into a quest of individual revelation at what it means to be capable of shaping one’s own story. I may be over-intellectualizing the plot, but I’m assuming that’s what the film was going for. I should say now that I have not seen it, though it’s being released on all major digital platforms in three days, so I may just have a chance.

The clip was of Ryan Reynolds fighting a bigger, ripped version of Ryan Reynolds during what I’m going to guess is either the final or the penultimate fight of the movie with the main character’s antagonist doppelganger. I’ll leave a link here for anyone who’d like to quick watch it, though I will summarize the clip for textual purposes as well.

At one point in the fight, Reynolds is able to access some in-game ability, and blocks a death blow from the doppelganger by suddenly manifesting Captain America’s shield. The Avengers’ Theme swells, and there’s a quick cut to Chris Evans sitting in a coffee shop, watching the fight on his phone—apparently the conflict is that day’s media-level event people are tuning into—and Chris exclaims, “What the fuck!” before the film cuts back to the fight. Reynolds, now gaining confidence and steam, turns his right hand into a Hulk hand and beats the doppelganger halfway down the street with a punch. The bad guy recovers, and him and Reynolds square off from a distance. Reynolds looks down at something out of frame, and all of the sudden, a blue lightsaber extends up. He has manifested this as well. The Star Wars opening crawl music blasts through the film, and Reynolds and his doppelganger charge at each other and begin to fight again. At about this point, the selected clip I found in the Tweet ends.

Below in the comments, there were two camps of people—one who was lamenting the death of cinema with another example of gross referential overuse; and the other who was indignantly proclaiming that the scene was harmless, and Free Guy should be enjoyed as a brainless and corny piece of entertainment to satisfy an escapist sweet tooth.

I find both of these arguments, in this example and others, to hold and lose water at about equal paces, just in different places. I’m not saying this to play a centrist role, and I’m aware of how that sounds, but it is really just my honest read on this situation and others like it.

Personally, because I haven’t seen the film, I don’t exactly know what the entire tone of Free Guy is. Judging from the clip, I would have to guess that it’s more likely than not a boilerplate, colorful, loud, quirky-but-still-appealing-to-mass-markets style Summer blockbuster that no doubt has zipping and quippy dialogue and a lot of pretty people running around and re-enacting the same patterns and stories human beings have been telling for thousands of years, pretending like they’re new. There is nothing wrong with this. I understand the enjoyment people receive from these types of works, and I in no means make any of this criticism or description out of contempt. This is simply my personal diagnosis.

In stumbling into this clip and the resulting conversation, though, I was reminded of another book/film—Ready Player One, and the same feeling I had both reading the book and watching the film was the same feeling that resurfaced watching the clip from Free Guy—the sense of a missed opportunity.

-A Pitch-

I genuinely feel, and will defend the statement, that Ready Player One had the potential to be a Verhoovian-level pop culture satire that could have come up against the likes of RoboCop or something like Fahrenheit 451. These are not necessarily works of high art, but they are certainly notable creations that managed to capture something of the flavor of their times in styles that shaped the aesthetic tastes and forms of either sphere they inhabited. And I really do believe that Ready Player One could have joined their ranks.

Here’s how I would have pitched the story. This will include a general synopsis of the existing story, with some added tweaks from myself:

Ready Player One is a blockbuster social satire about a young kid who lives in a world where people play together, go to school, work, and essentially live via an all-encompassing virtual reality game. Buried within this game are clues that, if uncovered and pieced together, will bestow the discoverer not only the vast wealth of the long-deceased game-creator’s estate, but full control over the game in perpetuity and forever. This young kid goes off on an adventure with some friends he’s met online to uncover the clues and save the game from the vast army of a tech conglomerate who wants the wealth of the estate and the control of the game for themselves.

Now, within this game, people manifest themselves as avatars that are usually repurposed pop culture icons, characters, figures, and personas. This is not incidental—the clues and ultimate key to uncovering the game-creator’s puzzle is based entirely in one’s knowledge of pop culture, specifically from the 1980s to the present day. How someone does in this game, and the only real factor that arguably surpasses luck, skill, and dedication in the search for the game’s ultimate puzzle—and therefore the fate of the world—rests entirely in an encyclopedic knowledge of everything from Mobile Suit Gundam to the video game Quest and beyond.

This world, this story, is one of people who aren’t only obsessed with pop-culture—they are, literally, forced to subsist on it. Pop cultural knowledge is the chains that bind, and can free, anyone in the world of Ready Player One. This is the central dilemma our main character must contend with as the story goes on, the fact that the stories he loves are being used to keep the world spiritually and materially destitute.

Now, in my opinion, that is a great starting point for what could be a fantastic quasi-satirical book or movie about modern day culture and its over-reliance on pop culture referentialism. One of the true curses of the present era is our hyper sense of self-awareness has made us bored and restless, and one of the easiest ways to sate that need is quick and simple pacification. This can come from substances, work, school, relationships, really any number of passions or habits pursued in a kind of manic and/or unexamined way.

Another way to sate that need is the constructive and measured exercise of making meaning in our lives, which we can do with simple actions and pursuits every day—but that’s much harder.

The pacification in question can particularly come from, or at least be very well observed in, art that is made purely to tickle a kind of pyschological/mythic sweet tooth human beings possess, one that craves reassurance and a captivation of attention away from the present moment and ourselves. Books and films like Ready Player One or Free Guy are drops in the bucket of examples for this kind of art, as it is proliferate and immane. This art is by design colorful, superficially resonant, and often has packages of information that relate to modern-day issues, but have been streamlined or watered down to make them palatable for an audience, or even to subtly shift an audience’s perspective on those issues altogether. By stringing together familiar and very old forms of storytelling while also sprinkling in little references to current events or moods, it’s very easy to make a blockbuster movie or book with wide appeal that captures the attention of a cultural moment.

Free Guy hasn’t really captured the moment—but Ready Player One did.

-Ernest Cline, You’re My Hero-

Ready Player One is one of the biggest missed opportunities I have borne witness to in the realm of pop-cultural art in my life so far.

Neither the book nor the film attempt to make any commentary on their extremely heavy use of pop culture, at all. There is no consideration by any of the characters, nor by the story itself, for what it means to live in a world where most people are interacting with each other as phantoms of nostalgic characters and figures in a virtual space. Multiple, severe layers of unreality permeate every level of those interactions in incredibly disconcerting and fascinating ways—and yet again, neither the book nor the film ever make a single noteworthy effort to incorporate that idea into their stories. The characters simply accept that this is how the world works, and the story itself reinforces that by offering no commentary, insight, or other perspective on the state of the world.

Ernest Cline, the author of the book and co-author of the film’s screenplay, drives a Back To The Future replica DeLorean and once wrote a poem called “Nerd Porn Auteur” where he describes his frustration that porn is only filled with “monosyllabic cock-hungry nymphos” and assures any prospective women that “If you’re an intelligent woman who is interested in breaking into the adult film industry,/and if you can tell me the name of Luke Skywalker’s home planet,/then you are hired.” It is unsurprising, progressive as he is, that Cline did not find the time to incorporate greater themes of the vast inhumanity inherent within a world where people interact with each other as digital versions of the Iron Giant and Sailor Moon moreso than they interact with each other in real life. Perhaps he doesn’t see or would understand why this would be a theme, or a problem, of interest at all.

This is criticism, and it is harsh. I am aware of that. I am also cognizant of the possibility that Ernest Cline is a good person whose greatest crime is writing a book. But if I am being brutally honest, I found his book to be absolutely sub-par work that was barely worthy of being uploaded to an internet fandom forum, much less major publication, and much much less a sudden and intense cultural fixation his story that lasted for quite some time. And a movie deal.

Put another way, Ready Player One’s mortal sin is that it became popular for all the wrong reasons, the same reasons fast food and opiates are popular. The story was picked up, like many stories before it, because the very world Ernest writes about is the one we live in. People enjoy seeing something, or a lot, of themselves in the art they gravitate towards. And I am sure that’s what they found with Ready Player One.

I know that Ready Player One was not intended to be a deep-level social satire on the inherent conflicts between reality and unreality in a culture that over-values one only so it can ignore the other through art that is increasingly becoming, or has always been in some way, artificial, mass-produced, and thoroughly inhuman. The book and film were written on the whim of a man who enjoys science fiction, superhero films, fantasy novels, and so on. Clearly, they make up nearly the entirety of his artistic diet. And there’s nothing wrong with that. He likes to write about what he likes—many writers do.

But I cannot personally ignore the total lack of self-awareness, and in my opinion, the complete failure of Ready Player One in what it could have been, mainly because it was so close to being something genuinely great. With a few minor tweaks and adjustments—a slightly sharper tone, some dialogue/description/framing in the world to show how inherently ridiculous reality has become now that it’s centered around something entirely unreal, even just one moment to show that the book or film possesses some idea of what it’s actually saying, of what it is—Ready Player One could have truly been a wonderful book and film with depth, with something to say, that was still capable of popular appeal. If RoboCop and Fahrenheit 451 could do it, I don’t see why Ready Player One was any different. There’s an answer to that statement, but it is obvious for anyone who knows it, and for that reason it will go without saying.

-Lost Time and Lessons Learned-

I do not know if Free Guy makes the same mistakes as Ready Player One. From the clip discussed in the beginning, it appears to do so, but in my opinion, this is negligible. Free Guy’s premise is interesting, but it does not hold as much potential weight as Ready Player One’s did, and the lack of cultural attention on it as opposed to Ready Player One at least makes the film’s presence in the media cycle tolerable, even sympathetic.

If anything, Free Guy is a symptom of the problem that Ready Player One so readily encapsulates. It is incredibly easy to put together a story, either accidentally or on purpose, that appeals to a mass audience. People like what they like, and those attractions rarely change. And many people do not, by the nature of who they are and what they’re interested in, find movies or books anything more than chocolates in an entertainment box. They will pick and leave at whim, and if they don’t like what they get, most oftentimes they spit it out immediately.

This is fine, because everyone’s tastes are different in some way or another. But just because someone doesn’t have the requisite knowledge about a particular craft does not mean any craftsmen or craftswomen should feel as though they’re able to get away with sloppy, or even voluntarily sub-standard, work. Our food is checked over by regulatory inspection agencies, and there are laws in place to protect people from fraudulent financial deals by those who’d take advantage of them. Do these agencies or laws work? Not as well as anyone would like them to. But at least there’s some sense of quality control in those fields to help people who wouldn’t know how to check their own food, or have a sense as to when they’re being lured into a predatory business dealing.

Because the thing about art is that it is possible because it has been done before to make a work of art, a book, a film, whatever, that both appeals to popular sensibilities and also has something to say. In fact, those are the works that, more often than not, are far more adored and remembered than something like Ready Player One or Free Guy.

By not going the extra mile, either out of a willful laziness or a blindspot in one’s knowledge of the craft, artists like Ernest Cline guarantee short-term success and short-term memory. Granted, the goal of any artist should not be to simply be remembered—the goal should be to make something good that you’d like to give to people because you enjoyed making it and you’d like to see what they think of it. Arguably, there should almost be no real goal at all. One could make the case that art should be created almost accidentally or naturally, either because of the maker’s enjoyment or the habits that bring it into form.

Point being, the fate of works like Free Guy or Ready Player One aren’t cause for great heartache or lamentation. Something else will come along that will capture the people’s attention tomorrow, or next month, or next year, and so on and so on, so it goes. That’s fine. That’s life. However, I do find the situations of works of art like the ones discussed in this paper to be sad. Seeing what happens to those books or films is like watching or knowing a kid who has to deal with bad parents and takes on their habits—something full of life and potential that, because of an accident of fate, is often lost to waste.

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