Ready Player Done

I grew into my adolescence during the 1980s, and Steven Spielberg’s movies were a large staple of my juvenile pop culture diet. I had become a Spielberg fan even well before the ’80s. I was only seven years old when my parents took me to see Jaws upon its original theatrical release in 1975. Many parents today, as they are in a constant state of neurosis keeping watch over their little children’s supposedly fragile psyches in order to shield them from all sorts of horrid influences and nasty thoughts, would shudder at the thought of a small child being exposed to a film like that…and by their own parents, no less. Why, a young girl goes skinny-dipping and gets devoured by the titular great white shark right in the opening scene! How depraved to allow a child to see such a thing!

But that was the great thing about being raised in the 1970s–parents didn’t give a damn. Me and my friends were already doing stupid things like pretending we were Evel Knievel and jumping our bicycles off of very poorly constructed plywood ramps. What was the big deal if we saw some movie about a shark that greedily feasted upon human flesh–men, women, and children alike? Most people didn’t think too much of anything about a seven-year-old boy seeing a movie like that, not back then.

And I loved that movie, of course. Still do. My wife and I took our son to see an outdoor screening of it last summer. He was long overdue, as he was already the ripe old age of eleven. We matured earlier back in the ’70s.

Spielberg’s next major hit was Close Encounters of the Third Kind later that decade. Supernatural phenomena featured prominently in the popular culture of the 1970s, an obsession of many in the hippy-dippy sect of the baby boom generation. By the ’70s, they had ditched their peace signs and tie-dyed shirts for “power crystals” and other such accoutrements of what became known as the “New Age” movement. (Which appears, thank goodness, after having lived well into the 1990s, to have been tossed into the dustbin of history.) Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock himself, the late Leonard Nimoy, hosted a fairly popular syndicated “documentary” series that explored such mysteries of existence as Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, the “Bermuda Triangle,” and other assorted and sundry manifestations of the otherworldly, including UFOs. They had already been reported for decades before, but it was in the ’70s that sightings of flying saucers and claims of alien abductions really came into fashion with widespread media attention. Even President Carter had claimed to have seen a UFO.

I need not cite every work of Spielberg’s canon to illustrate how adept he’s always been at exploiting whatever zeitgeist was capturing American society at any given time. Close Encounters and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, released just a few years later, both catered not only to the popular fascination with UFOs and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, but to ordinary Americans’ growing distrust with those in power as well. Following Vietnam, Watergate, the economic “stagflation” of the late ’70s, and other assorted debacles, there was a prevailing sense that those who held the reigns of the institutions of American society weren’t to be trusted; they were hopelessly corrupt, deliberately withholding the truth from the public, or they were simply incompetent, and everyone seemed to feel helpless as to what to do about it. The secretive, shadowy government officials and scientists in those two films were reflections of our own perceptions of faceless technocrats who seemed drunk with power.

Raiders of the Lost Ark, with which Spielberg kicked off the 1980s in collaboration with George Lucas, was particularly effective at playing to those sentiments, but this time redirected them in such a way as though to remind moviegoers that, no matter what our political leaders may be up to, Americans are usually the good guys. Yes, Spielberg and Lucas were already highly successful moviemakers reliving, perhaps indulgently, the Saturday matinee cinema of their youth, but it’s easy to see why their own subjective nostalgia played so well to a mass audience. A handsome, smart, masculine hero battling Nazis obsessed with tapping sinister occult powers was just the antidote Americans craved to cure them of their moral and ethical angst in the wake of the Vietnam war, the Nixon-era scandals of corruption, the revelations of the CIA’s abuses of power.

Like Spielberg’s prior movies, Raiders took that apprehension and loathing and repackaged it into glorious, enthralling Hollywood entertainment–everything worked out for our heroes in the end. The man-eating shark got blown up, Richard Dreyfuss got to take a life-changing journey beyond the stars, Indiana Jones beat the Nazis, and E.T. got to go home.

Don’t worry, Spielberg seemed to be saying. Everything will work out just fine–and in a really, really super cool way that’s fun to watch. 

But a lot has happened since the early 1980s. The scandal-plagued Clinton years of the 1990s, the 9/11 attacks, the eternal War on Terror, the exposure of the fraud and deceit at the root of the Iraq War, and the financial crisis of 2008 have shaken up the country in ways that make the ’60s look like an almost mildly entertaining high school musical. So much so that a billionaire real estate tycoon and reality TV star got himself elected president of the United States in stubborn defiance of the media’s persistent predictions otherwise. Millions of Americans have had their perceptions of their country and its role in the world radically transformed in recent decades. Spielberg, however, is still working with the same old formula that he’s been working with since he and his fellow baby boomers first came into their own in shaping so much of American pop culture. The incongruity has recently become painfully awkward to watch, like seeing a typical millennial’s grandfather trying to impress the kids with the Lorde records in his collection, but he keeps getting the titles of her songs confused with those of Joan Baez.

Following the clumsy and historically inaccurate The Post–grossly inaccurate even by Hollywood’s sloppy standards, in which the paper that declared in the wake of Donald Trump’s election that “democracy dies in darkness” is conveniently recast as the crusading defender of press freedoms against the predations of Richard Nixon (simply not true)–Spielberg now treats us to the dystopian spectacle of Ready Player One.

Now, this movie often looks fantastic. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski–a long time partner of Spielberg’s going back to Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan–has an eye for arresting detail reminiscent of a Life magazine photographer. And though the vast virtual world at the movie’s core takes some getting used to, it offers many visual pleasures that at times are spectacular to behold. And Spielberg is, as always, a keen master of keeping the action of a story moving along at a brisk clip, so the movie’s nearly two-and-a-quarter hours breeze by easily enough.

But something isn’t quite right here.

The movie is based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel of the same title. Our story follows a young man named Wade Watts (played by Tye Sheridan) who apparently lives atop a pile of trailer homes. It’s the mid-2040s or so and the future looks pretty crappy. So crappy, in fact, that most people escape into a massive virtual reality network called “the Oasis” with the use of special visors. Seeing as how the setting is America only a quarter of a century from now, this bit of speculation is depressingly plausible. It isn’t so hard to believe that Americans would rather play an online video game all day than actually deal with their stagnating society, which would require having an uncomfortable argument or two.

The most envied prize hiding in the Oasis is an “Easter egg” planted by its eccentric creator, the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance). The people obsessed with hunting for this Easter egg, the discovery of which transfers ownership of the Oasis into the hands of whoever finds it, are, of course, known as “gunters,” because sci-fi writers don’t like to be bothered with what they consider to be superfluous vowels. Watts, using the pseudonym/avatar “Parzival,” meets and falls in love with a young lady (Olivia Cooke) after saving her virtual life and preventing her from being “zeroed out.” She has named her avatar “Artemis” (which is actually spelled as “Art3mis”–again, sci-fi authors just don’t like so many vowels, even if it means awkwardly replacing one with a numeral).

While doing some research in the Oasis virtual library, Watts watches a playback of a pivotal scene in Halliday’s life–the resignation of his partner Ogden Morrow (played by Simon Pegg, cinema’s ever present nerd/sci-fi fanboy), which is later revealed to be over their conflicting romantic affections for the same woman. In his disappointment, Halliday muses the following out loud:

“Why can’t we go backwards for once? Backwards really fast, as fast as we can – really put the pedal to the metal.”

Upon hearing this, Watts manages to reason that it is a clue–as does the audience, upon whom it lands with an awkward thud–as to what to do at the next virtual car race to find the first of the three keys that point the way to the much ballyhooed Easter egg. Sure enough, instead of bursting forward into high gear, Watts kicks his virtual race car into reverse–really “putting the pedal to the medal,” of course–and is whisked along a hidden path that takes him to the finish line ahead of all the other “gunters” in the race. He therefore obtains the first key, gets his name and those of his crew on the big scoreboard, and receives a clue to the quest for the next key.

There’s no reason to rehash the entire plot here, nor do I wish to spoil it for anyone, but by this point readers who have yet to see the movie should have the gist of it. Longtime moviegoers will recognize many of the familiar Spielbergian tropes, the most prominent being young people of humble backgrounds battling against entrenched power. Nolan Sorrento, the CEO of Innovative Online Industries (played by cinema’s ever present bad guy Ben Mendelsohn), which makes the VR gear by which people access the Oasis, is willing to stop at nothing to take it over–such as exploiting a legion of debt-slaves to find the coveted Easter egg for him–giving the film its central conflict. And to be sure, this is a worthwhile theme to explore, but unfortunately the whole thing is handled in such a stunted fashion that it’s difficult to take seriously.

Then there’s the persistent flight into nostalgia throughout. James Halliday, who, like this writer, came of age in the 1980s, was hopelessly obsessed with the popular culture of that decade, and so he planted popular ’80s references throughout the Oasis, most of them visual, alternately glaring and subtle. At one point, Doc Brown’s legendary time-traveling DeLorean from Back to the Future can be seen traversing the screen. Spielberg was himself a co-producer of the 1985 film, but he avoids any further references to his own work of the period. No E.T. or Indiana Jones can be spotted anywhere on screen, perhaps out of Spielberg’s desire to avoid any appearance of egotistical self-tribute.

This element of the film, this wistful looking back at the ’80s that suffuses it throughout, simply undermines much of the story overall, and at one point offers some unintended commentary on Spielberg’s efforts here. (And one can’t help but be reminded that Hollywood used to produce much more entertaining fare in decades past.) Spielberg, of course, had no say in the matter as the decision was made for him by the author of the original novel (who also co-wrote the screenplay), but much of the nostalgia comes off as a clumsy parade of too-obvious pop references intended to flatter nerdy fanboys, who in their own smug, nerdy elitism probably won’t be all that impressed by them anyway.

Some of the specific choices in this regard are curious. At one point in their quest, Wade Watts and his youthful band of fellow “gunters” have to survive an impeccable virtual simulation of the foreboding Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 psychological thriller The Shining, which, like Ready Player One, was also an adaptation of a popular novel.

I have been reliably informed that the book, which this writer hasn’t read himself, subjects our heroes to the world of Blade Runner, not The Shining. (I’ve also been told that the novel also takes a foray into the world of Rush’s classic 1976 prog rock album 2112, but, alas, that was excluded from the film version as well.) One suspects that the fairly recent release of Blade Runner 2049 precluded the producers of Ready Player One from obtaining rights for its inclusion in their film, and so they went for The Shining instead. It’s too bad, as using Blade Runner would have been so unbelievably “meta”–a dystopian future film making an extended reference to a dystopian future film made decades before–that audience’s heads may very well have exploded simultaneously all over the world, or perhaps they would have been sucked into some kind of “vortex” created by a “rift” in the “time-space continuum,” or some such thing.

The most curious thing about the choice of The Shining is that author Stephen King infamously despises Kubrick’s film adaptation of his work. He never liked the particular liberties the director took with his plot, nor did he ever care for Jack Nicholson’s nutty-from-the-get-go performance, or for Shelly Duvall’s acting like a “screaming dishrag” throughout. Ready Player One suffers from some acting problems of its own, with its often flat, shallow performances. The only times when Sheridan’s and Cooke’s characters display any chemistry between them at all are when the actors are voicing their animated avatars in the Oasis; in “real life” it feels as if they’re being forced into going on a blind date that neither of them wants to be on. And though Mendelsohn isn’t quite twirling his mustache, his evil CEO is too flat and predictable to be very interesting to watch. He doesn’t get to display much depth or complexity at all until the film has nearly ended. Rylance appears to be playing at someone’s stereotypical assumption of what an eccentric billionaire tech genius must be like, but he just comes off like a special needs adult in constant need of being shown to the bathroom.

That Ready Player One‘s screenwriters–one of whom was Cline himself–chose The Shining is either ironic or all too fitting.