Pro Tips, Trends

Lessons From ‘Ready Player One’ on How to Channel Nostalgia


Nostalgia is everywhere in popular culture right now. From high to low, television and movies are foraging the past to reminisce, re-imagine, and resurrect. Steven Spielberg’s box-office hit adaptation of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a bursting piñata of nostalgia, is just the latest to do it.

The thing is, channeling nostalgia, and channeling it well, requires making smart creative choices. Which Ready Player One definitely does. Inspired by Spielberg’s film, here are some tips on how to properly wield the past for your projects.


Don’t Do It Because It’s Trendy

Nostalgia is very much en vogue, but that’s no reason to indulge on its own — if you’re thinking about making something influenced by the pop culture from the past, do it because you’re excited about it. Make sure it’s something that, even if it fails, you’ll be happy you made. Recall screenwriter William Goldman’s famous adage about predicting and expecting success in entertainment: “In Hollywood, nobody knows anything.”

Second, while you may remember the success of something like the live-action Beauty and the Beast, also remember that many other nostalgia-based projects have flopped dramatically (like the Baywatch reboot). So, if your only reason for playing to your, or others’, nostalgia is because you want to cash in on existing success, don’t do it. Otherwise you’re likely to create a cynical cash-grab empty of any creativity or passion. Which, incidentally, is what makes Ready Player One a welcome surprise in a lot of ways — on paper, it would be easy to see it as nostalgia cash-grab, but the joyous popcorn-movie experience it provides makes it clear that Spielberg made the film to not only have fun diving into this world like a kid leaping into a toybox, but to allow us to do so as well.

The cast of 2017's 'Baywatch'
The cast of the much-maligned Baywatch movie (2017)

Think of the Audience, Not Just Yourself

At the risk of some tough love, it’s important to remember that just because you’re nostalgic for something, doesn’t mean audiences will care. Yes, as a creative person, you should be driven by your passions, regardless of what others think. And yes, statistically someoneis bound to share your affection. But the point is this: if you’re only thinking of satisfying your own nostalgia, you risk making something inaccessible and impenetrable to others. Ready Player One stands out in that sense, because its breadth of references extend well beyond anything that might represent Spielberg’s own nostalgia. In fact, the movie is more aimed at servicing those who grew up on his movies and honoring their nostalgia, not his own. So, if you want to make a movie about Magic the Gathering cards or Pogs or Tamagotchi, remember to still create something that will matter to someone else – and it’s up to you to make it matter to them.

The boys of 'Stranger Things'
The cast of Stranger Things season 2

Make Sure You’re Telling a New Story

The impulse that says, “I want to make a project that recreates my nostalgia for X” should be a creative starting point – not the final destination. If your narrative ambition is limited to retelling an old story, you’re at risk of being derivative and boring. That’s why a key question needs to be: “How do I tell a new story around my nostalgia?” For example, Ready Player One leans on nostalgia to actually tell a story about nostalgia. Most notably, the way it brings people together in meaningful ways. Or consider Stranger Things: as much as it’s seeped in nostalgia for Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron, it never feels derivative or repetitive because it leverages its inspirations to tell its own unique story. Or an even looser example: Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, which is a love letter to Point Break and Bad Boys buddy action movies. The genre’s tropes act as a foundation for a new story that Wright builds on – making it feel like both a perfect evocation and a new addition to the genre. That’s what you should be looking to achieve.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in 'Hot Fuzz'
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in Hot Fuzz

Don’t Let Easter Eggs and References Dominate the Narrative

Where there’s a film or TV show based on nostalgia, there’s an article spying out all the references and Easter eggs the creators snuck into their project. It’s an understandable impulse. After all, part of the appeal of a nostalgia project is the chance to demonstrate you know your inspirations well enough to recreate them – even in throwaway details. But be careful about overdoing it. Too many Easter eggs will start distracting an in-on-it audience from your story, or risk the impression that you value showing off over telling a standalone narrative. Alternatively, too many Easter eggs can bog down a story in a way that can potentially alienate those who can’t pick up on them.

This is something Spielberg was very careful about in Ready Player One. “It was a matter of picking and choosing the right references to put in this film as not to distract form the main central storyline,” he told Extra in an interview. Those who have seen the film (or even its trailer) may find themselves saying, “Wait a minute” here, given that Easter eggs are everywhere in Spielberg’s movie. But in addition to cleverly making them an organic part of the world, the movie also always adheres to a core principle: Easter eggs and references are never positioned as something those in-the-know will be distracted by, nor are they so crucial to story that someone needs to be able to recognize them.

Steven Spielberg on the set of Ready Player One
Steven Spielberg on the set of Ready Player One, Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Embrace Aesthetic, Not Just Plot

We’ve talked a lot about story elements so far, but aesthetics shouldn’t be neglected either. Nostalgia is an emotion and a mood, and visual language is one of the best ways to evoke that. Work in aesthetic choices to evoke a feeling. Think of how the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, or even Thor: Ragnarok, channeled the aesthetic of what you’d find on sci-fi inspired van art. Ready Player One even goes so far as to lovingly recreate the entire look and world of a very classic movie in service of the plot. All of that reinforces this: aesthetic choices go a long way toward showing that you not only understand the verbal language of a piece of pop-cultural history, but the visual language, as well. Study the color choices, shot composition, and lighting of what you’re channeling, then figure out how to work it subtly into the DNA of the project you’re working on.

Top Image: Ready Player One, Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures, © 2018. All Rights Reserved