It seems strange to realize that we are in the final stages of Steven Spielberg’s filmography right now, and I’ll be honest: I’m not sure how I’ll handle it when he’s done.
The first thing I’ll do is celebrate what is easily one of the most remarkable bodies of work that any Hollywood director will ever create, because holy shit, Spielberg has been Spielberg longer than seems possible, and with READY PLAYER ONE, he’s determined to prove that he can still do what he does better than anyone else. I’m not sure he quite pulls it off, but clearly, there are few mainstream filmmakers who have ever been as good as he is at pretty much everything.
When it was first announced that Spielberg would be directing an adaptation of the novel by Ernest Cline, I thought it was a strange fit. Forget about any reaction I had to the book itself; it just felt like too much of a self-congratulatory move by a filmmaker who has resisted the easy monuments to his own genius that he could have built by now. Whenever Spielberg looks back, he seems to do so in order to gain some new perspective, not simply to indulge in nostalgia. He could produce a Jaws film every three years if he wanted. I’m sure Universal would be happy to exploit that title endlessly. He could do the same with pretty much every hit he’s ever had. Instead, he makes sequels very selectively as a director, and he makes savvy choices as a producer without ever feeling like he wallows. When he makes this final Indiana Jones film, I would imagine it is going to acknowledge the realities of age for a character like Indy, otherwise why bother?
What surprises me about Ready Player One is how natural a fit it is for him as a filmmaker overall, and how personal some of it feels. The script, adapted quite liberally by Zak Penn and Cline, is pretty nimble about the ways it streamlines things, and it also serves to reimagine the point of all of the window dressing. Because make no mistake… there’s a lot of Ready Player One that is window dressing, and it’s really easy to get distracted by it. If you do, though, you’re missing the point, and part of the point is that we all get very, very distracted by window dressing. Making this kind of hyper-aware movie can be dangerous, because it can quickly just become an exercise in “Remember that?”, and there’s also a chance you’ll make something that is too clever to really connect with an audience. You’re building such a big world that you want to show off every corner of it, but that’s not a story… it’s a tour. And that is a very easy temptation to succumb to, one that renders your characters fairly passive. Even the great Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory suffers from that problem, with Charlie really only winning everything because he’s the one character who never makes any active choices of any kind. He just lets the movie roll by him as he watches, and that’s a real danger for Wade Watts here. It’s easy in these movies to let the main character become the audience’s tour guide, and the first act of the film certainly felt like Ready Player One was heading in that direction.
For those who have not read the book or who are still confused by the trailers Warner Bros. cut, the film is about a kid living in Columbus, Ohio in the year 2046. The world the film establishes is one where America’s economic future has played out as a worst case scenario. Everything’s familiar, but shabbier, more scavenged and cobbled together. For most people, the only real outlet is the Oasis, a sort of super-charged virtual reality rig, and the biggest buy-in the film asks you to make is that one device and one virtual space would end up becoming the default setting for everyone. It seems like a jump, but then you think back 10 years ago and you try to imagine explaining to someone how Twitter and Facebook might impact real-world events like, oh, I don’t know, Presidential elections, and you realize that it’s very likely we will all hand over our identities and our entire lives to a piece of software that will let us hang out with friends from around the world while watching HBO dressed as Sailor Moon, if that’s what we want. Once you’re inside the Oasis, you can look like anything and do anything and go anywhere, and that is where the much-discussed “nostalgia overload” of this movie kicks in. If you think you’re going to be annoyed by seeing a whoooooooooooole lot of pop culture iconography jammed in together, then, yeah, this probably isn’t the film for you. But the truth is, we are already awash in this world. People have already spent 20 years relearning the rules of online society versus meatspace society, and people love the malleability of identity that comes from existing as words on a screen. All you have to do is look at people’s Twitter names and avatar pictures, and you’ll see exactly what would happen if we were truly set free to reimagine ourselves from stem to stern. I laugh all the time at the nimble way people bend and break things, the playful names, the way people steal context back to defang things.
You can tell that Spielberg is giddy as he gets to show you around the Oasis, and I get it… this is definitely going to be possible at some point. Probably not in time for me to enjoy it, and probably not in time for Spielberg to enjoy it, but it’ll definitely happen. It feels like part of the reason he made the film is because this is the closest he’ll ever get to actually having the Oasis at his fingertips, and as a lifelong gamer, he’s desperate for even one hit of what the Oasis would offer. The promise of virtual reality that delivers a truly immersive experience is one that people have been chasing as long as I’ve lived in Los Angeles, and the hold it has over people’s imagination is a powerful one. Like I said… I get it. When I moved to LA, I drove cross-country with my writing partner. He and I managed to get a Chevette from Florida to California without killing the damn thing, and instead of just stopping in LA and setting up, we drove north to the Bay area first. We went to the offices of Jaron Lanier and VPL Research because I’d read a piece about Lanier in Wired magazine. The vision he talked about for what virtual reality could be was so inspiring that I wanted to see it for myself. That was 1990, though, and what they were doing was so crude, so rudimentary, that I left heartbroken. I realized that everything he talked about was right and true and would eventually happen, but that we were so far from it that I might as well have been a caveman listening to someone talk about the benefits of air travel. In the book, there’s a lot of shoe leather between the introduction of the world and the actual conclusion of the first challenge in Halliday’s Easter Egg Hunt, but it’s been slimmed down here to such a degree that it’s almost dizzying. Fans of the book better brace themselves for some radical rebuilding, because this is a film that is unafraid to jettison anything it wants from the source material.
The Easter Egg hunt is the main story hook here, a framework that gives Spielberg a chance to debate who it is who should own this kind of powerful new medium. Essentially, the Oasis became the new normal for everyone, and then the creator of the Oasis died, leaving behind a contest instead of a will. Whoever finds three clues inside the Oasis that lead them to a hidden Easter Egg will inherit complete control of the Oasis and about a half-trillion dollars. There’s an evil corporation (because of course there is) called IOI that wants to win the contest so they end up in control of everything, and then there are the kids like Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), poor and anonymous and utterly in love with the potential of the Oasis, who want to win simply to preserve this amazing thing they love. The film manages to set up the entire premise of both the Oasis and the Easter Egg hunt all before the main title appears, which is about as nimble a bit of info-dumping as I’ve seen recently. And then it’s straight into the first challenge, which has been reimagined here as a massive race through New York to get to Central Park. Wade’s run the race a thousand times as his Oasis character Parzival, and he’s frequently joined by his best friend Aech, a giant, hulking brute who also happens to be an engineering wizard.
Wade only knows Aech online, and some of the film feels like it’s designed to explain ideas that anyone who lives and works online already understands innately to people who do not. It’s easy for people to forget online that there is a good percentage of the world that wants nothing to do with that entire online culture, and who pay no attention to it at all. When Aech talks to Parzival about his crush on a badass gamer named Art3mis, it’s to warn him that he has no idea who she really is. “She could be a 300-pound dude named Chuck,” Aech admonishes him. Parzival doesn’t care, though. He’s sure he knows the “real” Art3mis, and his fixation on her is probably the stuff that I had the biggest problem with in the book. It’s all geek-fulfillment-fantasy-girl junk, with Art3mis serving as the prize that Wade gets for being “the coolest.” It’s juvenile relationship writing, which might seem appropriate since so much of geek culture seems to be built on this weird self-appointed identity as hopeless with the opposite sex. It’s awkwardness-as-fetish at this point, though, and it’s objectification as much as any muscle-headed bro groping someone at a bar. It’s still all about seeing women as “other,” as things to be obtained instead of people who make your life richer for being part of them.
The film does some good work at making sure that Art3mis, eventually revealed as Samantha (Olivia Cooke), is as fully-realized as Wade. Also, by switching some of what they did in the book in act three, she’s given a more active role in things and made more of an equal player. Samantha also calls Wade on it the first time he tries to tell her that he loves her. “You love your idea of me,” she tells him, and that’s such a big idea that I almost wish we could get a whole movie about that. That’s the most dangerous, toxic, and common thing that happens, and so much of what is wrong between men and women can be summed up in the space between those two ideas. His declaration of love is ridiculous. He’s a little boy playacting at it because that’s what he’s seen in the pop culture he gulps down to study for the Easter Egg hunt. He wants to be in love, and he is interested in Art3mis, therefore he loves her. And because he loves her, that’s all it takes. Now she should love him… right? Because they like the same games. Right? Movies always have to shortcut the way real love works, and that’s fine. We get that. But this is different, and I’m glad the film takes the time to at least acknowledge the distance between the illusion and reality.
Spielberg has always appreciated the value of a good set piece, and the film runs that opening race through New York twice, once to show us the full chaos of how it works, and the second time to show us how different it is once Parzival cracks the first clue. It’s a pretty delightful visual treat both times, and I like the freedom of fully-digital Spielberg. I still say there’s one action sequence in The Adventures of Tintin that would be at the top of his filmography if it had been live-action, but it also would have been impossible. I like that he has embraced the idea that if he’s going digital, it’s time to dream even bigger, and he indulges that freedom here fully. I laughed out loud not at the recognition of things from pop culture, but at the way he slammed them together. It’s cheeky and it’s funny and he’s just plain having fun.
We spend a little time revving up to the second challenge, and then when it arrives, it’s another total rebuild from what was in the book. Cline originally imagined a sort of movie karaoke, challenges where you had to step into a movie and perform it as perfectly as you could, playing one of the characters. Spielberg and Penn have taken that idea and then shot it full of steroids, and when it becomes clear which film they’re about to drop their characters into, it’s one of the great “are you kidding me?” moments of Spielberg’s entire career. What’s amazing is how much better the sequence is that I would have even hoped. It is Spielberg getting to pay tribute to not one but two artists he adores, and he recreates a specific film to such a startling degree that at one point, I just kind of grabbed my head because it felt like it was about to spin right off my shoulders. It made me dizzy. It is stunning work, and even now, a few days later, I can’t really believe what I saw.
Here’s the thing about Spielberg when he’s hitting on all cylinders, and this is something that only recently connected for me. For years, I’ve struggled to explain exactly why I consider him the greatest commercial filmmaker of all time. He’s not my favorite director, and he didn’t make my favorite movie, but if I had to say who the very best was, I’d give it to him. To explain, I have to compare, and the comparison I’d make would be to Stephen King, who I think has the single greatest authorial voice I’ve ever read. King is known for ham-handing endings to many of his books, and I think there’s a familiar shape to a lot of his stories at this point, but none of that matters. With King, it’s not about the story he’s telling. It’s about how he tells it. There is no other writer who makes me feel like I’m sitting there next to them, simply listening to a great storyteller as he lays something out. King’s use of language is so perfectly everyday, so comfortable and invisible and familiar, that I will follow him anywhere. Even when I reach the end of a King book that doesn’t work, I am glad to have spent the time with that voice, and that’s Spielberg. There is no one else who better understands the simple communicative nature of visual storytelling than Spielberg. He can do more with a single camera set-up and a bit of staging than other filmmakers do with an entire movie. Look how many of the scenes in his films are built around a single take, his camera always somehow in the exact right place without being showy about it. He wasn’t above cribbing visual language from other filmmakers at the start of his career, but the way he used it made it his. Hitchcock may have done that thing where the camera pushes in as it zooms out to create a disorienting effect, but once Spielberg used it, that became one of his signatures. He is easy to parody because his voice is so clear, so clean, so recognizable. So many filmmakers have borrowed from him and learned from him and tried to emulate him that it’s impossible to imagine what pop culture would look like without his voice having guided the way.
As for the rest of the cast, Ben Mendelsohn plays Nolan Sorrento, the guy who is in charge of IOI’s efforts to win the Easter Egg hunt, and despite a distracting set of false teeth, he does really fun work here. My oldest son immediately posited after the film that Rogue One is just Nolan Sorrento’s afternoon of playing Star Wars: Battlefront on the Oasis, which made me laugh, and part of what makes Mendelsohn so much fun here is how hard Sorrento has to work to hide his contempt for the gaming culture that his entire future hinges on. In one moment, he has to pretend to speak Wade’s private geek language, his entire team feeding him nerdspeak a la Cyrano in his earpiece, and Mendelsohn is hilarious at playing the bile he’s barely holding back. The film’s final act deteriorates into some fairly routine real-world bad guy stuff, but there’s a lovely grace note right at the end that leaves Mendelsohn with his dignity intact.
I also like the kids. I think Sheridan is a bit of a blank, but that’s almost perfect in a movie about gaming. There’s a fine line you have strike in creating the perfect lead character in a video game, because you want to make the character specific, but also leave room for the player to express some of their own personality in how they play. Lena Waithe is terrific, and I thought both Philip Zhao and Win Morisaki were charming. Mark Rylance and Simon Pegg both have just enough room to really make Halliday and his estranged business partner Ogden Morrow live and breathe, and I love that Spielberg has decided Rylance is his guy now. Rylance was amazing in Bridge of Spies, he was amazing in The BFG (yeah, I said it), and he is very touching here as a guy who gradually realized that this beautiful thing he built, despite its beauty, might not be a net win for the world.
Ultimately, the things that make it feel like Spielberg himself had to make the film are the things that make it worth a conversation. Despite all the nostalgia that is baked into the film’s premise and despite the gorgeous wrapping paper, Spielberg and Penn keep pressing you to look past that. In that set piece I keep talking my way around, yes, the interaction between an old film and new characters is remarkable, but the sequence is about something personal to Halliday, something he didn’t do in the real world that haunted him. Over and over, the film underlines the idea that the Oasis can be fantastic, but there’s nothing in it that will ever truly be the same as a gentle breeze or a kiss from someone you genuinely love or the connection you make when you can stand face to face and look into someone’s eyes.
It may seem bizarre or contradictory for a film this jam-packed with visual wonder and CGI firepower to urge the audience to just go outside, but it makes perfect sense that as Spielberg reflects on a life spent in the dark of a theater, he would finally embrace how beautiful it is when the credits roll, and we finally step back out into the sun.
Running time: 140 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic