The Iron Giant is not a gun. Yet he’s being used as one, in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, the Iron Giant does something the character would never do: become a war machine.
On Friday, when Ready Player One is out in wide release a new generation is introduced to The Iron Giant. The movie is a contemporary classic that touchingly explores identity, purpose, and responsibility in the backdrop of Cold War America. But that’s not what the Iron Giant will be in Ready Player One.
Nineteen years ago, Warner Bros. released The Iron Giant, in which a boy named Hogarth befriends a giant space robot (voiced by Vin Diesel, who has a knack for giving souls to CGI characters). Set in the McCarthy era and in a small town Norman Rockwell would have loved, Hogarth teaches the Iron Giant — who has no memory of his origins, but his armaments suggest he was built for warfare — to be a benevolent hero.
In a retrospective from 2016, Movies with Mikey host Mikey Neumann explored the movie as a meditation on the realities of death and the power in responsibility. While Bambi introduced children to the concept of death, Neumann says, The Iron Giant taught kids what “death actually means.”
“You must experience it, you must live it, and you must confront it,” Neumann says. “The deer is alive, and now it is not.” And through the film’s antagonist Kent Mansley, who fears the Giant so much he nearly annihilates Hogarth’s town in a nuclear blast, Neumann says that The Iron Giant teaches its audience that “the fear of those that are not like us will also destroy us.”
These are weighty themes in what was still a cartoon with a cool robot. The Iron Giant is and was, unmistakably, pacifist. Instead of a typical fighting robot like Shogun Warriors, Voltron, or the Megazord from Power Rangers, the Iron Giant subverted action sci-fi in that the Giant had to learn peace against his programming. The Giant’s sacrifice at the end is the cost of stubbornness, bigotry, and yes, war.
The Iron Giant was a box office failure, but thanks to time and home video it is revered today as a cult classic. This makes the Giant prime for a cameo in the geek culture smorgasbord that is Ready Player One. But the Giant’s appearance on the battlefield loses meaning the Giant represented. In fact, the film misappropriates the Iron Giant into the last thing he wanted to be: A war machine.
But war is noble in Ready Player One, at least we’re led to believe. In a future where mankind retreats into a VR simulator called the “OASIS,” Ready Player One is a modern twist to Willy Wonka in that the OASIS’s creator, James Halliday, holds an “Easter egg” hunt for the OASIS to find. The winner inherits Halliday’s fortune and “control for the OASIS itself.” A corporation seeks to win the prize, leading OASIS gamers — led by spunky Wade Watts — to fight and prevent them from monetizing every inch (in the novel, the OASIS was a public utility that people use to shop, communicate, and kids use to go to school).
Nostalgic pop culture dominates Ready Player One. Knowledge of arcade classics and breakfast cereals and every line in WarGames will help “gunters” (egg hunters) win Halliday’s treasure. Nostalgia for a bygone era is a global obsession. Due to practical reasons, among them copyrights, the film had to make many changes, which led to the inclusion of the Iron Giant. In the book, the Japanese superhero Ultraman plays a big role in the battle. But an ongoing lawsuit regarding Toho’s ownership prevented the film from using him, so at the suggestion of Spielberg, the film uses the Iron Giant instead (as well as the RX-78 Gundam from the 1979 anime Mobile Suit Gundam).
While Ultraman is also a peaceful, benevolent hero like the Iron Giant, Ultraman still wrestled kaiju to death to save the world. He makes sense as an avatar for war, even if the “war” in Ready Player One is virtual; though it’s all one big video game, control over a place literally named for “refuge” means that people actually die.
It would have been fine if Ready Player One included robots that had less weighty themes than The Iron Giant. Stuff like Mazinger-Z, Johnny Sokko’s Flying Robot, Voltron, even Transformers would have made more sense than the Iron Giant. The Giant’s mere presence feels disingenuous. It’s an empty call back to a generational touchstone, as the reference to the thing eclipses what the thing actually meant.
Ready Player One will be released on March 29.