Steven Spielberg directs Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke and Ben Mendelsohn in this sci-fi adventure about kids trying to find the easter eggs that will grant them control of the immersive VR game that dominates their lives.
Where to start with Ready Player One? Is it any “good”, I guess? By modern blockbuster standards, it is standard. The human kids are blank husks. Olivia Cooke is undeniably cute and has a fake birthmark here but that’s where the sparkle of personality ends among our heroes. These dead eye automatons aren’t 21st century Michael J Foxs or even Sean Astins. There are lots of FX but very little wonder. Once you enter into a world with no limits you really want to feel overwhelmed… yet the OASIS delivers exactly what you’d expect from it and often with computer animation that feels slick yet rote. It has the same uninvolving sheen and lack of consequence that many of the Marvel set pieces suffer from. There’s no overriding risk. Sure, “death” means you can lose all your fantasy wealth but considering the characters will always have their skillset to reacquire all the gold coins and inventory it hardly feels like a major set back… and not a consequence that ever is really explored.
So where’s the thrill and tension? It is telling the simpler real world sequences of kids running about factories and hiding behind couches raise the pulse more and feel more Spielbergian (The Goonies meet Minority Report) than all the twisting cityscape demolition derby racetracks and massive raids on fortresses of doom within the game. Even then we hardly reach Inception levels of invention when physical attacks on the plucky gamers in reality effect their avatars in the dreamscape. A car smashing into their mobile gaming van creates an inconvenient wobble but we are hardly seeing that twirling, gravity defying corridor fight counter-physics that Nolan so persuasively dropped on us.
Much has been made of the tsunami of pop culture and geek culture references that dominate the game. The OASIS is a world where you can play as Lara Croft or Robocop or any signifier they managed to clear the licensing rights too. But in all honesty a cheeky nod to the Last Action Hero and a brilliant sequence that recreates Kubrick aside (seriously, these five star 10 minutes parallel the high points of Back to the Future Part II and Batman Vs Superman in their gleeful meta-meatyness; the undoubted highlight of the entire adventure), I met it all with a shrug.
Vintage-wise, these are precisely my generation’s toys and iconography but it feels either too obvious or too obscure. All bunged in without wit and often taking things to a show-off level of specificity that it plays only to the dullards. And dullards worse than me, who can’t get their head around new Star Wars entries or female Ghostbusters. Cuddling up to those who are making nerdy fandom a depressing place.
If you are going to have the Turtles crop up, don’t let it be their current newty incarnations when the bulky cartoon equivalents mean more to everyone. If you are going to throw the Delorean into the mix, let it have the advantages and limitations of Marty and the Doc’s trusty vessel rather than be just another fast racer that looks like the Delorean. And yeah… I recognise a Gundam…. but I reckon the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, a giant “Baby Ruth” screaming Sloth, stop motion ED-209, a mega engorged Johnny 5 or even Doctor Ivor Eggman Robotnik would have filled the same purpose and meant a lot more to far, far, far more people? And no obvious Star Wars… pffftttttttttt….
My point is not to make me as obnoxious as ‘those geeks’. I’m not merely saying ‘you included this and not that… boo hoo!’ I’m saying very little care has gone into the relentless nostalgia. It is constant but under utilised. Mere set dressing. Like being invited to rummage around a carboot sale of your childhood, where you aren’t allowed to touch and have no money to take any of it home and everyone wants to see the next busy blanket so the crowd pushes you along to the next trestle table full of lifeless, rigid touchstones from those play-filled Saturday afternoons with no chance to do more than steal a glance at it all. Imagination in aspic, stuck helplessly in a jelly, making it shiny and unpalatable. Let us play with it!
Of course Spielberg is doing all this on purpose. His overriding desire is not to create an adventure that kids will act out in a playground like we did with his Indiana Joneses or Jurassic Parks, or even a love letter to the generation who bought into to those triumphs. It is to critique two symbiotic cultures.
One is the gaming culture that takes a youth audience away from his immaculately crafted adventures into their own interactive worlds. People spending weeks immersed on Call of Duty or The Last of Us are not finding the time to go see War Horse. And Spielberg plays up the addictive nature of these rival experiences. The future he presents narrowly depicts nearly everyone obsessively playing out their second lives in the Oasis. The over populated Columbus, Ohio, where shanty towns of trailers piled on trailers, exists in this particular nightmarish state as the town is the birthplace of Gregarious Games. For all we know the rest of the world is fine compared to the dystopia presented. Only the game addicts have flocked to this particular city, using it as a communal jacking in point. We never meet anyone who hasn’t settled in Columbus to devote their life to the game. Everyone else around the globe might have perfectly healthy lifestyles. They could all exist outwith the narrative – never playing the game, or playing another game that isn’t twenty years old, or only visiting the Oasis in moderation with no threat of being sent to gold farming Loyalty Centres to pay off their neglected real world debts. Either way Speilberg’s assessment of the gaming world is one without innovation, one where an entire community is dangerously subservient to it, one with no interest in any culture that exists outwith the game.
Two: Spielberg attacks the current obsession in Hollywood for existing properties. He came to power in an age of original material. Sure, Jaws is based on an airport novel and Indiana Jones is rife with homage for the bearded wunderkind’s own childhood cinema… but they were made in an environment where the quality of the concept was more important than its recognition value. The 80s had remakes (The Fly, The Blob) and even reboots (Star Trek, Flash Gordon, Batman). It even had films based on toy lines (Masters of the Universe, Action Force: The Movie). But in the main, it was a decade where toys were based on cinema franchises, not vice versa. And everything else mentioned was surrounded on all sides by wide releases of original creations from famous auteurs, or sold on star power. Nowadays everything given tentpole marketing seems like a photocopy or a cosplay. Without Spielberg’s name as a brand and the fact the concept opens up the movie to have Tyrannosaurus Rexs / King Kongs / Batmobiles-a-go-go, it is hard to imagine modern Hollywood would greenlight a project like Ready Player One based merely on the limited readership of a cult novel. There is no benefit in constantly, cannibalistically, looking backwards… unless it is to open a sneaky level-completing, hidden, cheat back door.
So Spielberg creates an oppressive, exploitative playground exaggerating these two cultures. A playground where having your imagination perscribed to you by regurgitators and corporations only interested in repeating what has worked previously. One that is fascist and dangerous. It is all very well having a library devoted to the legacy, memories and pop culture absorbed by one brilliant man but surely the kids should becoming up with their own tastes, stories and icons. Not living in the 3 Dimensional Facebook feed of a dead tech autistic. The ultimate message of Ready Player One is it is sexier to find your own fun, give yourself space and time to make human interactions. “Tuesdays and Thursdays,” if you must.
Deeply flawed, grumpily misguided, Ready Player One still has enough fun within its griping motivations to make it one of the better blockbusters we’ve had recently. It never threatens the Spielberg 24 carat gold but it matches contemporaries Thor: Ragnarok or Justice League in terms of colour and kinetics, detail and gorgeousness. You just cannot help but think Spielberg might be better served lending his talents and creative control to something he authentically was excited about though. His thrilling recreations of 20th century historical amazing tales are his current forte. Both Bridge of Spies and The Post were effortlessly more entertaining than this, despite their mature, dry subject matters. This fits awkwardly in with his decent but ultimately flat CGI dominated adventures. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, The BFG and this all remind me of David Bowie “Jungle” period in the mid 90s. An ageing master trying to give the kids what they want and coming across as average rather than spectacular, worse still alienating his middle aged fanbase. None of these heavily rendered blockbusters are awful but you yearn for the days when Spielberg was dragging Harrison Ford through deserts or chucking jeeps into trees with computer augmented hydraulics. The Amblin logo, the twinkling Silvestri score and the Drew Struzan poster promise the very best and a back handed warning about living in the real world with satisfactorily flat effects and lacklustre toy catalogue wallpaper just doesn’t cut it. Not when you invoke those particular totems of popcorn brilliance. You cannot wear the fetish of an old school Spielberg four quadrant magic around your neck, and deliver a jokeless satire. Don’t piss on your legacy when you still can create classics.
Mark Rylance though, playing this plot’s Willy Wonka (mixed a little with our reality’s Steve Jobs) is a marvel again. He imbues his creator figure with a confused sadness, a romantic wonder and accessible mystery. Like his Big Friendly Giant, he manages to be human and otherworldly simultaneously. Lucky for his regular collaborator Spielberg, Rylance manages to bring heart to a product that constantly, and almost willfully, avoids guts.
My Top 10 Steven Spielbergs
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
2. Jaws (1975)
3. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
4. Schindler’s List (1993)
5. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
6. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
7. The Post (2017)
8. Jurassic Park (1993)
9. War of the Worlds (2005)
10. Empire of the Sun (1987)