On November 24th, Ernest Clines’ Ready Player Two was published by Ballentine Books. It’s the sequel to his zeitgeist-capturing 2011 novel Ready Player One. Kline’s literary debut was one of the best-selling science fiction novels of the decade. It was also undoubtedly one of the most hate-read. Mystery Science Theater’s Michael J. Nelson and co-host Conor Lastowka even started a popular podcast, 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back, devoted to eviscerating Kline’s pandering pean to 1980s pop culture, and then similarly unreadable tomes.
Not even Steven Spielberg, one of the greatest and most popular filmmakers alive and the primary architect of the 1980s pop culture world Ready Player One slavishly worships, could turn the rusty tin of Kline’s book into a halfway watchable movie with his shockingly abysmal 2018 adaptation of Kline’s breakout novel.
To put things in Roger Ebert terms, I hated, hated, hated Spielberg’s Ready Player One, easily his worst movie, to the point that you could not pay me enough to read it or its follow-up. I despised Ready Player One with every fiber of my being because it reduced movies that were borderline sacred to me growing up to an endless series of glib, cheap pop culture references designed to make audiences feel smart and plugged in because they’re familiar with some of the best-known, most talked about pop-culture of the past fifty years.
Ready Player One and Ready Player Two are merely two of the most loathsome products of a phenomenon I like to call The Nostalgia Industry. The function of the Nostalgia Industry is to take our most beloved formative memories in the movies and TV shows and books that defined our boyhoods, tweak them a little, and then sell them back to us as nostalgia-crazed adults and dads.
When I worked at The A.V Club, commenters would always complain that the newest remake, reboot or sequel would ruin their childhood, that these cynical, opportunistic pretenders would forever taint the things they grew up loving.
I have discovered, however, that the exact opposite is true. If anything, the cheap predations of the Nostalgia Industry cause us to cherish the cultural touchstones of our childhood even more.
Take, for example, The Rise of Skywalker. The unfortunate “final” entry in a series — that began legendarily in 1977 with Star Wars — seemingly could not have been more poorly received if it had starred Jar Jar Binks and Chewbacca’s family. When it comes to famously disappointing finales to beloved American pop mythology, The Rise of Skywalker made The Godfather Part 3 look like The Godfather Part 2 by comparison.
The cultural consensus seems to be that not only did J.J Abrams not stick the landing for THE MOST IMPORTANT SAGA OF ALL TIME; he humiliated himself with a flat-out stinker that didn’t even manage to be bad in an interesting or memorable way, “Somehow, Palpatine returned” aside. Did this cause Star Wars fans to retroactively hate the first trilogy? Of course not. If anything, famously misguided sequels like Rise of Skywalker, The Phantom Menace, and Attack of the Clones cause fans to retreat even further into the womb-like safety of their nostalgia for Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.
That’s true of other sequels, remakes, and reboots as well. If a reboot, remake, or sequel is genuinely good, as reboots, remakes, and sequels sometimes are, then that unexpected quality justifies their existence. Take, for example, Bad Boys for Life and Bumblebee, which separately and collectively suggest that the only thing keeping the Bad Boys and Transformers franchises from being good was Michael Bay in the director’s chair. Remove Bay from the equation and you suddenly have crowd-pleasers audiences and critics love, that builds on our nostalgia for pop culture’s past rather than cheaply exploiting it.
Alternately, if a remake, reboot, or sequel fails it’s generally quickly and completely forgotten. When Robocop, Total Recall, and Point Break were remade it did not cause people to forget the originals, or to see them as outdated or unnecessary since versions with more sophisticated technology and newer actors were available. The intense forgettability of these cheap products of the Nostalgia Industry only highlights just how unforgettable Robocop, Total Recall, and Point Break were in their original incarnation. On a related note, the cover of the newest issue of Men’s Journal features a smiling, hunky Jon Hamm on the open seas accompanied by the words, “From Top Gun to Fletch, Reviving Hollywood One Classic At a Time.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at the notion that Hamm, a cast member in the upcoming Top Gun sequel and the ostensible star of a Fletch reboot that may or may not happen, is a catalyst behind a funky new trend of new movies rooted in the public’s enduring affection for the art and entertainment of their childhood rather than someone with a floundering film career who scored high profile roles in movies rooted in Reagan-era nostalgia because those are the kinds of movies that get made today and those are the kinds of roles an icon of rugged masculinity like Hamm gets offered.
Needless to say, Hamm is not a major player in the booming nostalgia industry. Hamm is just a cog in a very big machine that sometimes works very efficiently and sometimes does not work at all. If history is any indication, Hamm’s Fletch adaptation will probably get mired in development hell the way previous reboots that would have starred Jason Lee and Jason Sudeikis did.
But if Hamm’s Fletch does get made it seems safe to assume that whether it is good or not it won’t ruin ANYONE’s cherished childhood memories of the Chevy Chase “classic” and could very well cause fans to hold the original in even higher regard, whether it deserves it or not. Should a Fletch reboot get made, it would only draw more attention to the Michael Ritchie-directed 1985 cult hit.
That’s the thing about our childhood pop-culture memories: they’re fucking bullet-proof, not so fragile, delicate, and wispy that all it takes is a bad reboot, cynical remake, unnecessary sequel, or crappy Ernest Kline novel to destroy them.