The screening of Ready Player One at SXSW couldn’t have come at a better time. There was a growing backlash to the movie, with many people judging it for shamelessly exploiting 1980s nostalgia solely to win brownie points with Gen X movie critics. It was cheap and derivative, people were declaring without having seen the movie at all, and should be dismissed out of hand.
Those attitudes seem to have been quashed to a great extent by how positive the SXSW reception was. While actual reviews seem to still be embargoed, the Twitter updates have largely called it fun and well-made while admittedly leaning on nostalgia pretty heavily. That it comes from director Steven Spielberg, who doesn’t exactly have to work hard to prove his pop culture bonafides, helps. A good number of critics are now predicting the movie will be a big hit, a reversal of the “this is going to flop hard” attitude of just a couple weeks ago.
All that can’t help but remind me of another movie that was roundly – almost universally – praised at SXSW and hailed for how it embraced and celebrated pop culture only to go on to land at the box office with a thud akin to a vintage video game arcade machine being tipped over.
I’m speaking of course of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
When that movie screened at SXSW in 2010 everyone loved it. And why not? It was loose and fun and contained lots of gags that resonated with a generation that grew up knowing the Contra Code like it was their home phone number. Michael Cera was great, as was Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Anna Kendrick and the rest of the hip, young cast. It was a movie about video games that felt like a video game! That it came from director Edgar Wright, who didn’t exactly have to work hard to prove his pop culture bonafides, helped.
Maybe it’s that the last eight years have seen at least one generation of turnover in the writers and others who are now covering movies for the sites and blogs that are part of the entertainment press, but I’m seeing precious little awareness of how we’ve been down this road before.
Just because a movie plays like gangbusters in Austin when it’s specifically designed to appeal to the kinds of critics who are going to be in Austin, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for the mass audience. All the praise for the movie may be true – it may be a lot of fun that’s also well made and feature characters that are more three-dimensional than the trailers have presented them – but that doesn’t mean suburban moviegoers are going to choose it.
In fact, as good as the movie might be, I’m surprised more of the immediate feedback hasn’t pointed out at least two of the headwinds the movie faces when it arrives in a couple weeks:
- Spielberg looks surprisingly vulnerable right now. The Post did not do as well as it should have given its pedigree and subject matter. I’m not saying he’s lost his touch, but it’s certainly not a given that his name is enough to open a movie, at least not anymore.
- The movie is about white male culture. It’s not that white men need to shut up and disappear entirely because of the centuries of oppression they’ve visited upon literally everyone else. I *am* one, so I’d very much like to still be able to express myself. It’s just that right now we’re celebrating a box-office weekend where the #1 and #2 films – Black Panther and A Wrinkle In Time – are much more representative of under-served and under-appreciated voices and groups. And we’re realizing that white men have dominated culture to date, including appropriating elements of other groups while discounting more authentic and original representations of that culture.
Both of those could impact how a movie about a white kid steeped in nostalgia for a uniquely white, male culture is received. That may be true to the source material, but that’s not going to help anyone’s argument.
It will be interesting to see what the full reviews for Ready Player One look like when they start to come in. Maybe some will acknowledge the issues it faces. But right now I’m flashing back to 2010, when everyone was *sure* that Scott Pilgrim was going to be a massive hit because everyone at SXSW loved it. As we found out then, and may find out again now, that’s not always a guarantee of mainstream success. In fact, it could be a clear sign it *won’t* work.
Signaling that would require a level of institutional memory and historical context that’s sadly lacking here.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.