Over the Christmas period, I went to go see Wreck-It Ralph 2 known as Ralph Breaks the Internet. Generally, I enjoyed the first film. The message about being constrained by society’s expectations of you is an interesting one and all the pieces fit together cohesively. The central theme of the second film is pretty solid too and one that spoke to me. It is, in essence, a story about not being possessive of your friends as they pursue their dreams. All in all, the film is pretty harmless. However, the representation of the Internet kept throwing me for a loop. Before the film, I generally expected the cringy adoption of internet culture by the film in a skin that would feel as hollow as the Emoji movie. While I watched the movie, I got a sense that there could be a darker, more caustic movie behind the movie. However, the fact that this was a big budget Disney affair meant that they had to play it safe. So, let’s take a look at the Internet. Before heading into this piece, obviously spoilers ahead.
The film begins with Vanellope generally dissatisfied with the same thing every day. Ralph wants to cheer his friend up and so alters her game, Sugar Rush, to introduce some excitement. This results in a broken game part that is more expensive to fix than Sugar Rush makes annually. So, it looks like Vanellope’s game is being disconnected which results in a Sugar Rush refugee crisis as space is found for the displaced characters. Ralph realises that the Internet has the part he requires so he ventures into the Internet to get the part. That’s the premise that gets them into the Internet. Most figures in the Internet are avatars of real-life users. However, Ralph and Vanellope wreak havoc as user-less agents within the Internet. Ralph and Vanellope are essentially bots.
After committing some light fraud to outbid people on the Sugar Rush part, they find out that things cost money. That’s capitalism for you, Ralph. Now, they need a way to make money. They talk to a pop-up ad who suggests that they can earn money from playing games. If you’ve been around the Internet for a while, you start to get a sixth sense for scams and I would be pointing Ralph in exactly the opposite direction. In their pursuit of money, they meet with the pop-up who is merely advertising more lucrative gold farming. They pursue their grand prize in a GTA-clone called Slaughter Race. You have to suspend a lot of disbelief for this movie. First, the car within the game is valued at $40,000USD. I did a bit of research for this section. The most expensive car in Grand Theft Auto 5, which does have an online component, is priced at $3,000,000 in the game’s virtual currency. You can buy this currency with microtransactions for the low, low cost of $60USD. Not exactly a fortune there. This article suggests that some of the most expensive individual cars in games top out at about $200USD. We’re still a far cry from the money needed. Like I said, you need to suspend your disbelief hard.
Due to plot, their attempt to procure the car fails and they search for another method of earning money. They turn to YouTube, well, not quite. Any real Internet brands are relegated to mere cameos or mentions. Google’s plot function is replaced by an AskJeeves type website called KnowsMore. YouTube is replaced by the portmanteau-named BuzzTube (there might be more Z’s in that title). They seem pretty much identical until the head algorithm of BuzzTube mentions that YouTube exists making BuzzTube the second rate cousin of YouTube. It’s VidMe essentially. Then, you start to think about how BuzzTube exists. I mentioned the head algorithm before. She doesn’t like you unless she really likes you. Ralph first gains a foot in the door by having one massive viral video. Then, it begins.
So, Ralph starts his life as a content creator with the algorithm on his side. However, there is a 72-hour deadline on getting all the money to pay for the Sugar Rush part. Thus, Ralph goes on a viral video blitzkrieg, releasing everything from cooking videos to unboxings to that one goat meme from centuries ago. Again, I find myself suspending disbelief as ‘hearts’ amount to money and he makes the money he needs in the allotted time frame. No holding periods or anything. There is another wrinkle in how he does this (I mean aside from the existential horror that comes from the fact that sentient data can be recorded and perceived by actual people). BuzzTube, as headed by its head algorithm, utilises pop-up ads to drive users to the platform and to specific creators. Suddenly, the way that BuzzTube is competing with YouTube becomes way darker with a virtual currency of hearts and army of bots driving traffic.
Perhaps the last thing of note I want to look at is when Ralph falls to the bottom of the Internet, runs awry of the dark web, and finds himself amongst the rubble of GeoCities. Perhaps one of the only times I chuckled during the course of the film was that GeoCities joke. A simple side gag that really works because no-one is concerned about advertising GeoCities. It gets to exist as the dark artefact that it is. Contrast that to the other part of the film that stands in stark contrast by having Vanellope transported to the Disney website. What follows feels like the words ‘corporate synergy’ manifested as a movie scene. Notably, the scene features mostly kid avatars who are drawn away to Ralph’s videos via pop-up in a phenomenon that kind of reminds me of this situation as explained by Dan Olson of Folding Ideas.
So, what point am I trying to make with all of this? A movie centred around the Internet was unremarkable and had vaguely sinister ideas with a friendly face attached. I could take the darkest approach and suggest that it is teaching bad Internet habits to kids who can’t filter information in the same way as adults yet, all in the name of promoting tech and culture conglomerates. Which it kind of is. However, I think my real gripe is this. There is a way darker movie hidden in the subtext of this movie. A movie in which money is hard to come by, scammers abound, and we all live under the boot of the tech conglomerates. There’s a weird cyberpunk dystopia to be made from personifying the Internet but it’s a movie that would never get made because of corporate interests. When the idea of ‘selling out’ comes up in artistic circles, I tend to rally against it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with making your art commercial to survive in a consumerist world. You have to eat.
This movie sits at an interesting crossroads for me as such. It is definitely compromised by corporate interests but I can’t defend as a potential great work of art that was crushed by those ideals. It can’t exist without those factors and yet feels held back by them. The first movie was in an easier position because all of its video games references merely had to have the characters do what they do as characters. Mario and Sonic cameos aren’t representations of Nintendo and Sega as a whole, just of those characters in the context of the film. I think perhaps that Ralph 2 has given us an out. Parody can say things that most media cannot. A parody of Wreck-It Ralph could be the caustic look at the Internet that I wanted all along.
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