Movies to Watch With Ready Player One

(Welcome to Movie Mixtape, where we find cinematic relatives and seek out interesting connections between new releases and older movies that allow us to rethink and enjoy what’s in our theaters as well as the favorites on our shelf. In this edition: Ready Player One.)

Ready Player One feels like the beginning of the end of geeks dominating pop culture.

Even as Marvel plans its hundred-year reign and properties of all stripes from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s are born anew, Steven Spielberg’s latest is like seeing someone’s $5 bet and raising them a billion dollars. Ernest Cline’s novel was the geek equivalent of handing someone a tub of chocolate frosting after busting buttons at the all-you-can-eat buffet. “I heard you like geek culture. How about all of it at once?”

It wouldn’t surprise me if, after this, the entire film-going world needs an antacid.

The movie also spits in the face of this column’s central idea. Finding connections between movies? How about a movie made solely from connections to hundreds of movies, comic books, and video games?

An avalanche of references for Captain America not to get. A sea made of Easter egg yolks. A movie that’s a natural double feature. Hopefully, this list will offer some choice gems that both celebrate and question nostalgia.

Arcade (1993)

Behold, the early-career work of David S. Goyer! Arcade plays like if TRON were a horror film directed by Roger Corman. It’s got Seth Green, A.J. Langer, and the guy who played Q on Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is ’90s schlock royalty with a video game meta narrative where plucky kids leave their world to do battle in a VR nightmare.

Directed by Albert Pyun (of The Sword and the Sorcerer fame), Arcade is about kids beta testing an arcade game called “Arcade” with a big bad named “Arcade” in an arcade. The bad news is that, beyond lacking creativity in naming things, the gaming company included bits of a murdered boy’s brain into the coding.

Even the panning shot in the trailer where it comes around the headset-sporting boy’s shoulders reminds me of Ready Player One.

Fanboys (2009)

Thrillist recently posted an outstanding oral history of how Harvey Weinstein slashed this love letter to Star Wars to meaningless shreds and buried its release. The timing of the piece is apt not only because Cline wrote the original version of the script for Fanboys, but because the Kyle Newman film marked the moment when fandom became the subject of the story. The lens was turned to face geek culture.

The cameo-soaked movie follows a group of friends attempting to break into Skywalker Ranch to steal a copy of Episode I because they don’t think their cancer-diagnosed friend Linus (Chris Marquette) will survive to see it hit theaters. It’s filled with cultural references and nerd shibboleths. That includes two scenes where the crew is quizzed to prove their fanboy status, setting them up to win their ultimate prize because of their trivia knowledge (hello, Ready Player One). If it weren’t meta on meta enough, their trek (sorry) mirrors A New Hope almost beat for beat.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Speaking of copying plots, Ready Player One is Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. The poor boy longing for escape. The eccentric businessman with an insane test to find an heir. The technicolor candy. The book wears this echo on its sleeve, and Cline openly name-checks the Roald Dahl classic in describing the movie, saying it’s as if “Willy Wonka was a video game designer instead of a candy maker and he held his golden ticket contest inside the world’s greatest video game.”

No wonder they used a slow cover of “Pure Imagination” in the first trailer.

The Wizard (1989)

We all know the Fred Savage/Jenny Lewis-starring celebration of video game mastery, but what you may not know is that its director, Todd Holland, got his start after Spielberg saw his UCLA thesis film and hired him to work on Amazing Stories. 

If you haven’t seen The Wizard in a while, be sure to wear your nostalgia goggles or prepare for a let down. A lot of it, joyously, doesn’t make sense (how did they know about the warp whistle?!), but it also raises an excellent question about product placement in partnership with Ready Player One.

After Jimmy (Luke Edwards), brother Corey (Savage), and Haley (Lewis) make it to California and get Jimmy into the video game tournament, the movie turns into a commercial for the then-unreleased Super Mario Bros. 3. That was like Christmas as a kid, but now it’s worth an eye roll for how poorly they crammed it in. But what’s the line between product and cultural artifact? Ready Player One is effectively a log jam of both – blissful reminders of art we love and a sales pitch for Iron Giant Blu-rays.

Brainstorm (1983)

Inception meets Being John Malkovich before either existed, this movie is worth watching for Louise Fletcher’s performance alone. Directed by effects legend Douglas Trumbull, the sci-fi trip is about a group of scientists developing a computerized method to directly share human experiences with someone else via recording. Things go sideways when the military wants to use the tool to torture and brainwash.

With the classic morality tale question of how far we should take science, Brainstorm does something keenly shrewd by perverting empathy into raw sensation. The tool that Michael (Christopher Walken) and Karen (Natalie Wood in her final film role) develop is concerned with empathy, but that’s weaponized by converting it into surface level spectacle – both sexual (in the form of an endless, looping orgasm) and violent.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)

You wanted to spend the rest of the day watching Brie Larson sing a Metric song, right? You’re welcome.

After that first Ready Player One trailer landed, I haven’t stopped thinking about Scott Pilgrim and its glorious, too-brash-for-success, pop culture worship. This movie deserved far better than it got, and part of me wonders if it simply arrived on a geek-wary scene too early, before a broader audience was versed in the lingo it toyed with. Would it have been a bigger hit in 2018? Would Fanboys have found more love on the heels of The Last Jedi? I think so. (Plus, there’s a plot element in Ready Player One that winks at something in Scott Pilgrim pretty hard.)

Also, not enough of you saw Speed Racer.

The Mix

Whether you hate, like, love, or feel indifferent to Ready Player One, its existence feels like a challenge. It’s like exciting homework in the same way Marvel announcing its slate through 2030 feels both exhilarating and exhausting. Like Netflix planning multiple seasons of Stranger Things before we know whether the next is any good. A promise, but also a threat.

A few years ago, Spielberg claimed that studios would collapse under the sheer weight of all the blockbusters they were making, and now he’s happily participating in it. Ready Player One isn’t going to kill the geek movie trend, but it’s a watershed moment that should divide audiences depending on whether they can stomach the buffet.

What movies are you watching with it?

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