Why Pop-Culture References Are Not the Secret to the Global Success of “Ready Player One”

Matthew Loffhagen
Warner Bros
(Photo: Warner Bros)

“Ready Player One” is not the world’s most popular movie in the United States.

Sure, it’s doing better than expected in local theaters, but it’s hardly “Black Panther”. This is one film that probably won’t stay strong in the box office top ten for a quarter of the year.

That said, the movie is setting records around the world – particularly in China, the second biggest moviegoing nation on Earth.

Thus far, “Ready Player One” has earned $161.3 million in China, making it 2018’s biggest Hollywood release in the country thus far, and setting a record as Warner Bros’ highest grossing movie in China to date.

In China, “Ready Player One” is beating “Black Panther”, which has only made $105 million, and even “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”, which only earned $42.5 million.

Ready Player One Movie
Source: Warner Bros

Here’s the thing that makes this really interesting, though: the Eighties nostalgia that “Ready Player One” is built around is entirely meaningless to the majority of Chinese viewers.

There’s no great desire in the country for references to “Back to the Future”, “E.T.”, or any Steven Spielberg movie. China simply doesn’t care.

There’s a good reason for this: decades ago, China’s policy on importing movies was very different to today. Many of the big films of the ‘70s and ‘80s have never been seen by Chinese viewers, and as such, there’s no big nostalgic interest in them at present.

This is why movies like “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” perform so poorly in China; without the established fondness for these characters, locations, and tropes, it’s hard to sell the nation on a franchise that’s so steeped in the past (even if the message is that you should kill the aforementioned past, if you have to).

Ready Player One VR
Source: Warner Bros

So what has Chinese audiences so enthralled with “Ready Player One”?

This movie means something very different in the country than it means in America.

The message that audiences are taking from “Ready Player One” in the West is that sometimes, it’s okay to escape the depressing reality of modern life by disappearing into childhood ephemera.

In China, the takeaway from the film is that sometimes, it’s okay to escape the depressing reality of modern life by disappearing into the internet.

Internet culture is universal. The idea of defending a safe online space where young people and congregate, safe from the manipulation of the ruling adults, comes with a lot of potency.

Every effort has been made to fill “Ready Player One” with references and Easter Eggs, but the majority of viewers are simply happy to let these pass by as they instead enjoy a story about how the internet can connect people together. The story is more important as a recreation of a Mass Multiplayer Online videogame than as a collection of ‘80s references.

Source: Warner Bros

All of this suggests that we’re probably going to get a “Ready Player Two” at some point in the future, but if the story features a lot more Asia-specific references, don’t be all that surprised.

Considering some of the fun Gundam stuff from the first movie, this feels like no bad thing!