Cinema: Spielberg Emulates Spielberg with 'Ready Player One'

There are two ways to approach Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Ready Player One. The first is to throw caution to the wind and blindly hope the director who made Jaws, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and Jurassic Park has readied another classic. The pedigree is certainly there, and the novel upon which the film is based took great care to emulate Spielberg’s specific brand of fantasy. It was his to adapt by design. If anyone could double as a crack storyteller and expert in the fetishization of the 1980s (one that has afflicted our own culture as well as the film’s), it would be Spielberg.

The second, and admittedly less fun stance, is to factor in the director’s recent output. Since the critical mauling of Indiana Jones 4 a decade ago, Spielberg has abandoned spectacle to become Hollywood’s resident grandpa; churning out well-intentioned, if occasionally stiff history lessons like Bridge of Spies and The Post. These are not bad films per say, but they are complacent ones, the work of a director who feels he has nothing more to prove (and is right). The notion of him jumping back into the blockbuster pool, where Marvel and Star Wars are currently taking victory laps, is an admittedly daunting one. No one wants to see their grandpa attempt a swan dive and end up belly-flopping.

Somehow, Ready Player One achieves both. It is a return to the childlike wonder that pre-Saving Private Ryan devotees have longed for, only with Spielberg’s modern complacencies tempering the mix. He still has the instincts of a director half his age, and the technical acumen to back them up, but his interests, his disassociation from children and growing association with the adults they idolize, puts him in the awkward position of having to force things that once came naturally. As much as its about Parzival (Tye Sheridan) chasing down the ghost of James Halliday (Mark Rylance), Ready Player One is about Spielberg chasing down the ghost of his younger self. The results are intriguing and mostly entertaining.

The script, written by Zak Penn and the author of the novel, Ernest Cline, is your standard elevator pitch, in that it combines two famous properties to create a marketable third-- in this case, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and The Matrix. Parzival is our Charlie Bucket/Neo for the year 2045, an impoverished nobody who pines for a greater purpose, and finds it in the guise of the Oasis, a virtual gaming system. The late Halliday has hidden an Easter Egg in the Oasis that if found, will grant the winner complete ownership of the system. I guarantee the ending you piece together from this information is correct.

But Ready Player One is not about originality. If anything, the recycling of ideas are meant as a sort of meta-commentary on the Oasis, which traffics in pop culture. Parzival and his allies, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), and Sho (Philip Zhao), define themselves by which ‘80s music they love and how much they know about John Hughes movies. Any mention of the real world is met with a tinge of embarrassment-- for these teens, the Oasis is their reality. A more cynical director would have teased out the similarities between the characters and the today's internet crowd, but Spielberg plays it cool, leaving the parallels to be made by the individual viewer. A smart move, given that the film’s dense catalogue of references and Easter Eggs are going to be gobbled up by that same crowd. 

The Oasis scenes are some of the liveliest that Spielberg has staged in years. The opening race explodes with kinetic imagery and clever references (including Jurassic Park and the Spielberg-produced Back to the Future) that establish the rules of the game. Another sequence sees Parzival and friends enter into the chilling realm of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which is breathtakingly recreated through CGI and deleted footage. Spielberg’s fandom of Kubrick has never been more overt, or infectious, for that matter-- it brings out the little kid in him without feeling labored.

Where the film falters, and where Spielberg’s diminishing talents rear their head, is when he tries to hit more traditional story beats. Sheridan and Cooke look their respective parts, but neither leaves much of an impression. They could have been replaced by any two actors in their age range-- an unfortunate waste, given that a film of this magnitude could've turned talented unknowns into superstars. The supporting cast is similarly nondescript, contributing little to the magic that Spielberg and his animators have created before them. In truth, the only actor worth mentioning by name is Rylance, who endears as the eccentric Halliday. In his winsome, all-knowing grace, one gets the sense that he is an avatar for his director-- a beloved artist, residing over a popular culture he helped create.

There's a tremendous sense of urgency that runs throughout Ready Player One, especially for a career like Spielberg’s, which has felt static for so long. It’s exciting to see him try out new ideas, to play with the language and elasticity of pop culture, even if some of the dramatic moments fall short. It might not be a swan dive, but it’s a damn good time at the movies nonetheless.