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SpielBLOG: Ready Player One – A Steven Spielberg Retrospective

The snake swallows its tail with Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s pop culture Alternative Reality fantasy Ready Player One. The innovator who dominated popular cinema in the late 1970s and 1980s, feeding the popular imagination with iconic moments and images from Jaws to Indiana Jones, finds himself filming a fanboy’s fantasy sunk in the lower levels of an almost toxic nostalgia.

Which is not to say Ready Player One is a terrible film. It’s Tintin for teenagers. A series of set pieces pulled together with a self-aware narrative that trips over its own sense of self-importance now and then, but pulls off some spills and thrills.

Wade (Tye Sheridan) lives in a trailer park that has morphed into skyscrapers with each RV piled one on the other. Wade – like the film and apparently the population of the world – spends his time in the Oasis, a virtual reality environment where players don Avatars and play endless games. One of these games involves the search for the Easter Eggs left by Halliday (Mark Rylance), the Willy Wonka of the Oasis who on his death left the company to the winner of his impossible game.

The first part of the game is an impossible car race with dinosaurs and King Kong and Wade driving the DeLorean from Back to the Future. It’s a brilliantly realized sequence, especially on the big screen and the best bit of the film. As long as things are light and move fast, so the film remains playful and satisfying. The moment we introduce rent-a-villain Ben Mendelsohn and the social commentary it shows itself up for the fluff it is. It doesn’t help that Wade isn’t a particularly compelling hero and the avatars that the main characters adopt are fairly crude and unmemorable.

All these characters are then placed in an environment where there are constant reminders of much better work, including Spielberg’s own (see dinosaur). The use of The Shining as an obstacle course is a visually striking sequence but feels also like pissing on a friend’s grave for kicks. I’m honestly not sure what Kubrick would have made of it and I’m pretty sure Spielberg can’t be sure either. Wade is not a kid of the 80s obviously and there’s an irony in the fact that the film is seeking to appeal to a whole generation’s nostalgia for a decade they never actually lived through. So with Wade, so with many of the audience.

Which is why Ready Player One feels like such a grindingly depressing experience. In the novel, there have been nuclear wars and whatnot, but aside from the Stacks – which we don’t get to see much of – the rest of the world seems to be fine. Also, the Oasis in the book is very much a society that reflects income inequality in the real world. Here, it is viewed as a genuine utopia and escape from the problems of the world.

Spielberg commented that this was the hardest film of his to make since Saving Private Ryan and one of the three hardest of his career. This difficulty was reflected when the film premiered as part of South by South West and had some technical glitches. Spielberg himself was present and introduced the film, saying that he was a gamer from the old days and so identified with the material. But for all that identifying, Wade is a slick anonymous character. He’s not a damaged man-boy like Richard Dreyfuss, or a lonely child looking for a dad like Elliot in E.T. There’s nothing between him and his avatar. Just less realistic hair.

Spielberg was grasping for a zeitgeist feel that seemed to come effortlessly with a film like The Matrix, but the actual source material stands way beneath him. As with Tintin, we can applaud the guy for exploring new technology and techniques, but except for some sequences – already mentioned – the rest of the film feels drab and unimaginative. The music by Alan Silvestri is typically anonymous and one thing is certain: Ready Player One won’t have the staying power of all the pop icons it references.

This is the final film in the SpielBlog. It took me just over a year. The initial inspiration was reading a book on Spielberg and wanting to revisit the films. I’ve always enjoyed Spielberg, even some of his less celebrated films and on this occasion, I certainly got a few new ideas while watching him. The inventiveness of the director as he pushes himself in new directions and deals with new material has always been impressive. Even as Spielbergian became an adjective and young pretenders such as JJ Abrams and Peter Jackson were catapulted into ever more successful films, overtaking Spielberg in many cases both in terms of Box Office and in seizing the public’s imagination, Spielberg himself moved in different directions. Sometimes he staggered and the piling up of okayish movies in the latter part of his career has been dispiriting to watch, but there’s always sense that he’s trying to make something different.

As new films come – and there are several in the works – I shall add to SpielBlog, but in the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. And viewing the films.

Check out all the films in the SpielBLOG
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