To fully appreciate one of the most brilliant flourishes in the pop culture razzle dazzle that is Ready Player One, you must first recognize the absurdity of the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system. That ridiculousness can be perfectly summarized by their official ruling regarding the use of the “F-word” in PG-13 films. This bit of MPAA obtuseness states, “A motion picture’s single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive, initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context.” That rule is complicated by a further guideline that allows board members to excuse the use of the “F-word” multiple times in a PG-13 movie if they feel it is used in a legitimate “context or manner” that feels appropriate within the presentation of the film.
That all sounds pretty fucking stupid to me, but that restriction has led to PG-13 film creators devising some pretty clever one-off usages of non-sexual F-bombs in their films.
If the writers and directors of PG-13 films want to get away with dropping an F-bomb multiple times in a movie, it’s really not that hard. The Martian, Million Dollar Baby, and The Fast and The Furious are among numerous PG-13 films that get away with doing just that.
Yet it feels like some filmmakers take it as a personal challenge to use the F-word only once in as memorable of a manner as possible. While we’d never dare agree that the MPAA has the right of it, we do admit that the word delivers the impact the MPAA seemingly believes it wields when its only used once during a key moment.
For instance, Wolverine telling Xavier and Magneto to “go fuck yourselves” in X-Men: First Class fits as snugly as three adamantium claws between the rib cage. And in contrast, when M asks Bond “I fucked this up, didn’t I?” in Skyfall, you don’t even have to realize it’s the first use of the F-word in Bond film history to appreciate the significance of M shedding the prestige of her position to share a human moment. But of all the great F-bombs in the annals of PG-13 movies, Ready Player One might just feature the best single usage of the word in film history.
The moment in question comes during the film’s climactic battle. Aech throws a “weapon” to Parzival and Art3mis which turns out to be film’s most famous slasher doll, Chucky. Parzival thus throws the ginger-haired demon into a group of enemy IOI Sixers. When Chucky latches onto one of the soldiers, he exclaims, “It’s fucking Chucky!” Chucky then proceeds to butcher a group of soldiers in short fashion.
Taken in the context of the theatrical experience, this moment successfully delivers the cheers and laughs that most PG-13 F-bombs are meant to offer. Yet the more I think back to that moment, the more that I appreciate its true significance.
Ready Player One is an unabashed nostalgia trip. However, different people will get different mileage out of the film’s many references depending on their own memories of the source material. When Ready Player One works best, however, is when it is able to use a pop culture memory to shatter even the sturdiest layers of cynicism and speak directly to the kid in all of us.
When that Chucky F-bomb moment occurs, nearly everyone reacts to it in the same way. You might be tempted to say that’s because it treats older viewers like “adults,” but it’s actually the one moment that treats them more like kids. Kids who remember how Chucky scared the hell out of them because he reminded them of toys of their own. And these same adults will also remember how Chucky’s foul mouth made them blush with the belief they were watching something “adult.”
Had Chucky not rode into the film on an F-bomb, we doubt as many viewers would count his appearance among the film’s most memorable. The fact that he did speaks to pop culture’s ability to interact with our primal hearts even if we try not to let it.
Yet, the aspect that makes the moment so cinematically significant is the presence of Steven Spielberg in the director’s chair. It was the Spielberg-directed Temple of Doom that inadvertently created the PG-13 rating. The MPAA didn’t feel that movie was violent enough to warrant an R, but it was certainly more violent than the average PG film. Spielberg’s desire to tell his kind of pop culture stories led to the MPAA acknowledging the cultural significance of a group of viewers whose presence hadn’t been accounted for in the previous rating system.
In that sense, Ready Player One’s F-bomb feels like both a middle-finger from Spielberg to the MPAA and a wink to the audience. It’s a reminder that the culture of cinema was created by those who recognized the rules and restrictions of blockbuster entertainment and said, “Fuck it, we’re doing it anyway.”