Director: Steven Spielberg
By Roderick Heath
It must be a strange feeling to live in an era you played a part in inventing. Steven Spielberg is one of the few people who might claim it, when regarding today’s pop cultural landscape. And how frustrating, to feel the same desire to create with the same old fervour and retain eminence when so many imitators and acolytes are pounding on the gates. Lately Spielberg has been contending with a host of wannabes eager to claim his mantle, and the jarring flop of his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG (2016) raised the possibility his days as a maker of big popular hits might finally be over. Maybe it was time to sell out like his pal and collaborator George Lucas, or perhaps settle for making more of his modestly popular, smartly if cosily-done, mid-budget dramas like Bridge of Spies (2015) and The Post (2017). Ready Player One signals this is far from his intention, a film that is at once a work of startling energy and brashness from a seasoned talent, but also one that fits with surprising elegance into the director’s autumnal phase, a contemplation of the notion of legacy in terms of a receptive and interacting audience and also in personal reckoning.
The source material, Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, is somewhat divisive as the “holy grail of pop culture,” as the film’s trailer proclaimed it. Cline’s book churned together a manic panorama of geeky emblems, conjuring a narrative that also worked as a literary equivalent of an online listicle, rattling off a swathe of appreciations and appraisals of various properties for a specific generational sensibility, in his fantasy world where the expanse of human imagination often boils down to repurposing myriad popular movies, shows, games, and books. To a certain extent Cline was only continuing a practice begun forty years ago by Spielberg and his generational fellows of the Movie Brat generation like Lucas, John Carpenter, Brian De Palma and others, with their early intimations of the post-modern sensibility incorporated into mainstream storytelling. They amalgamated genre tropes and narrative forms they found cool and felt other people dug too, whilst working in a personal sensibility. It’s in this last part of the process where the trouble lies: what if you don’t really have a personal sensibility, other than the various wares you’ve bought and used to furnish your mental space?
Most people aren’t artists or creators, and happy instead to wield the fare they love as a kind of livery, a phenomenon that’s easy to see all over our contemporary online lives, for everyone who clips out some screencap or piece of artwork to make use of an emblematic figure and infer to all and sundry our allegiances, self-concept, and ambitions. The setting of Ready Player One is one of near-future dystopia, one that could well be unfolding down the road from Spielberg’s last venture into this territory, Minority Report (2002). After a series of broadly described calamities, including “the corn syrup drought and the bandwidth riots,” Columbus, Ohio has become the world’s fastest-growing city, with most of the populace subsisting in crudely assembled slums called The Stacks. But many don’t care too much about their living circumstances, as they spend most of their lives immersed in an online virtual reality world called the Oasis, the brainchild of the late tech wizard and uber-nerd James Halliday (Mark Rylance).
Wade Willis (Tye Sheridan) is one of the natives of this timid new world, a prodigious young talent in the digital world and, outside of it, the barely-tolerated ward of his aunt Alice (Susan Lynch) and her sleazy boyfriend Rick (Ralph Ineson). Wade, who goes by the online moniker Parzifal, is one of a cadre of seekers who call themselves Gunters, or egg hunters, dedicated to the great quest Halliday built into the Oasis before he died: Halliday has placed an Easter Egg, coder slang for a hidden object, somewhere in the Oasis that will allow whichever intrepid and inspired soul can unlock it first to take control of Halliday’s company and the Oasis itself. Inevitably, this has spawned “clans” of unified competitors to dedicate their efforts to cracking the clues, and also corporate rivals in the form of the Sixers, an army of nameless, numerically designated gamers employed by IOI, a company founded by one of Halliday’s former employees, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).
Although intended as a vehicle of fantastical release, Halliday also built the Oasis to operate by certain rigid rules of cause and effect as well as be a zone of fair competition. Success in the Oasis depends entirely on the individual’s level of skill, and unlike the real world cannot by manipulated by other forms of influence, guile, or trickery. Certain extremely popular objects and effective tools can only be purchased with amassed credit, and to fail at a feat or die in the online world results in bankruptcy, and the player must start from scratch. The trouble with Halliday’s great quest is that nobody has ever managed even to surpass the first stage in the game, a colossal street race where the Gunters must attempt to outrace each-other and dodge ferocious threats, like breakneck plunges and a marauding King Kong, in order to reach the first of three promised keys that will grant access to the Easter Egg. Parzifal obstinately studies the assembled recordings of Halliday’s life, and races in the DeLorean from Back to the Future (1985).
Parizfal belongs to a subset of solo Gunters who disdain clans, but he does engage in friendly competition and downtime banter with Aech (Lena Waithe), who he only knows online as a hulking green mutant version of Vin Diesel and who’s a wiz at reconstructing virtual machines, and the dashing duo Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki), who appear as a kung fu master and a samurai warrior with Toshiro Mifune’s face, respectively. There’s also Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Parzifal’s greatest rival and an enigmatic figure of legend in the Gunter community, a sleek, colourful, dazzling cavalier who competes in the race riding the red motorbike from Akira (1988). Parzifal saves Art3mis from her own bravado as she tries to leap over Kong, and begin to form a rugged alliance in attempting to plumb the mystery of Halliday’s quest once more. Parzifal finally unlocks the puzzle of the race in listening to Halliday’s testimonials and his wish to rewind, to go backwards, which proves to be exactly the right way to win the race. Parzifal becomes an instant celebrity and is courted by Nolan to help IOI unlock the rest of the puzzle. When he refuses, Nolan hires two potent heavies to try and nail Wade and associates, the enforcer F’Nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen), who rounds up debtors for the loyalty centers in the physical world, and the accomplished virtual goon I-R0k (T.J. Miller), who appears online as a walking heavy metal band album cover.
To peel away the elaborate referential superstructure of Ready Player One is to find a straightforward story, pitting its young faithful against the forces of cynical exploitation, albeit traversing both the colourful digital universe and the grotty, dilapidated real world. Mendelsohn’s Nolan is revealed as someone who studied at the feet of the master Halliday but who even as an awkward whelp wanted to subdivide the Oasis experience according to real-world wealth, a notion explicitly at odds with Halliday’s meritorious world-building. There’s a damn clever reason behind the film’s pop cultural lexicon, as Halliday, a Gen Xer, made the Oasis an open zone for immersion in any lifestyle people desired, but structured his quest specifically according to his own proclivities as a nerd, and so to master the Easter Egg hunt demands mastering both his obsessions and his biography: the journey into the works is a journey into the creator. It’s believable when you consider the way nerd references are implanted in contemporary computing, like the phrase we use to refer to unwanted emails taken from a certain beloved Monty Python gag. The lexicon of a certain variety of entertainment has been hardwired into the technology created by its fans in the same manner as the classical education of the Victorian era’s inventors and entrepreneurs inflected their terminology and wares.
It’s tempting nonetheless to describe Ready Player One as the ‘80s retro bar glimpsed in Back to the Future Part II (1989) transmuted into an entire movie: harvested, essentialised images from a time now fading into a similar status the 1950s had for the characters in Robert Zemeckis’ beloved trilogy, as a time of dogging nostalgia and niggling regret. Part of that lustre was of course the result of a general agreed contrivance, as filmmakers like Spielberg, Lucas, and Zemeckis projected their own ‘50s youths onto the ‘80s whilst taking a half-suspicious sideways glance at the promise of Reaganism to restore that lost Eden, but constantly suggesting the new forces in play. I fit the generational template for this film pretty squarely, and although I have no desire to remain living in a perpetual bubble of 1985, I also don’t mind appreciating and celebrating the best of the age, particularly when much of it still has to fight for a seat at the table as far as critical standing goes. Not that the ‘80s is the only frame of reference: much more recent video game characters are also in the mix.
Cline’s plot draws on a host of models – there’s the idea of the video game as a version of the sword-in-the-stone task from The Last Starfighter (1984) and the quest to assume the mantle of a mysterious and tricky creator from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, whilst the conflict in the digital realm obviously echoes Tron (1982). I could compare Ready Player One to some other films that have similarly contended with the splintering of reality and the looming possibility of life lived in proxy, movies like David Cronenberg’s ode to digital dysmorphia, eXistenZ (1997), Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006), Zack Snyder’s level-up dark fantasy of Sucker Punch (2011), Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2011), Wong Kar-Wai’s dreamy emotional biography 2046 (2004), and the movie adaptations of Suzanne Collins’ thematically similar The Hunger Games books. It almost goes without saying that Ready Player One is far lighter and more pop in tone than some of those, although it manages to ply the same imperatives without succumbing to the leaden self-seriousness of the Hunger Games films in particular: Ready Player One aims, and succeeds effortlessly, in recreating the old, jaunty mood of ‘80s pop movies whilst still analysing the new anxieties of the present. It also lacks the dreamlike conjurations and shifting sense of self Kon was able to articulate in his alternate reality journey through the mind and the furnishing provided by formative fixations and the imaginings of others. And yet it manages to contend with the same reservoir of fixations and concepts on its own terms.
The very premise of Ready Player One is the sort that tends to instantly polarise and inflame sensibilities, veering between delight and exasperation, and depending very much on one’s age and sensibility which. Some adverse reaction carries a strong whiff of generational prejudice: it was all right to remix old serials and pulp tales into the Indiana Jones films or churn together a host of references in the Gremlins movies because they were artefacts of baby boomers’ fond remembrances, but to remix more recent fare is to appease younger people who are all, if you were to believe some journalistic voices, boors, sexists, and racists. It’s true that the nerd creed long sported a proud badge of innocence as one fit for outcasts, oddballs, misfits, and proud weirdos to coexist harmoniously in a zone outside the competitive realms of other pastimes, but of late, as it’s become cooler to be considered geeky, an unpleasant side to this world has been growing, the vicious and competitive gatekeeping and internecine strife. Spielberg and Cline, who co-wrote the script with Zak Penn, emphasise the positive side, as Wade’s progress is one of forging amities that bleed into the real world and bond together people who are on the surface rather different but who share a deeper essence.
The way we consume pop culture has changed tremendously since Spielberg and the other Movie Brats started. Back then, except for TV showings, it was very hard to access older movies and TV shows. Pop culture of the moment was more definite, more enveloping and defining. Today, it’s very easy to live in a self-curated bubble totally different to the person next to you. There still are and always will be shared generational touchstones, but pop culture is far more of a bricoleur’s state now (although that might be changing again now that streaming platforms are effectively sequestering whole realms of culture and tightening the scope of interest to what services and sites choose to drip-feed their subscribers). Ready Player One’s survey is attuned to this phenomenon. All our concepts, all our pet fantasies, are a mask for something else, and the film’s human story is very much a tale that should be familiar to many of us, as the various young online swashbucklers become fretful about transferring their chemistry into the real world.
Parzifal falls in love with the glamorous Art3mis, who warns him about the dangers inherent in blurring the Oasis life with the real world, a warning echoed by Aech, as they exist for the most part in a world that allows them to distort or even abandon their real-life identities: “You only see what I want you to see,” Art3mis tells Parzifal. As they’re forced to attempt to save each-other and beat IOI, the digital heroes are obliged to try and meet up in real life and fend off physical threats. Aech proves to actually be Helen (Lena Waithe), a black lesbian, Sho is an 11-year-old, and Art3mis is a young punkette belonging to an alt-culture clique dedicated to resisting IOI, trying to hide a birthmark on her face behind a lick of red hair.
The game of spot-the-reference is certainly fun, and sometimes pays off in some blissfully silly conjunctions, as in the great climactic battle when Nolan as Mechagodzilla battles Saito in the form of the first real “mecha” hero Gundam, the evil, possessed doll Chucky from the Child’s Play horror series goes on the rampage, and Ted Hughes-via-Brad Bird’s Iron Giant recreates the salutary thumbs-up of the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). The telling aspect to all this lies in the recognition that all these avatars plucked from pop culture are masks of various principles and ideas and projections of our interior selves and collective sensibility that long precede these various figurations, and also their role as tropes connecting to various roles. Even if you’re not a fan of these various properties, what they mean to others is made instantly apparent, and play their role in the story rather than being the story. Most cinema people react to video game associations like they’ve taken an acid burn, but Spielberg seems entirely Zen about it, although he might be better positioned to given his influence on that realm too. What is the Tomb Raider franchise but a distaff, simplified version of his Indiana Jones films?
Most computer games are built around figurations taken from the essentialised studies of mythology of Jung and Joseph Campbell, systems of progression through to an innermost cave of achievement, ideas Lucas and Spielberg did much to popularise. A major motif in the story zeroes in on the legacy of Warren Robinett, whose game Adventure involved locating his own hidden name in a secret bole, the first ever Easter Egg that entwined the act of discovery and curiosity for its own sake with the pride of creating. Spielberg has never been a meta filmmaker, preferring instead to comment via sideways inferences and likenesses. Ready Player One is nonetheless perhaps the most overt work of self-analysis Spielberg’s made since Jurassic Park (1993) provided a vehicle to explore his pride and unease as a creator of wildly popular entertainments that sometimes provoked unwanted responses and challenges. The tepid response to Lucas’ later Star Wars films as well as his and Spielberg’s return to the Indiana Jones series, and works of retro tribute like The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) and The BFG, revealed a looming generation gap, one that’s been nimbly exploited by the likes of J.J. Abrams, for whom pop culture dates back no further than the first Star Wars.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was vital and fascinating, but also restlessly received, in very large part because it was a generational statement from Spielberg and Lucas, attempting to introduce Jones, the mythical avatar of their parents’ generation, into the world of their own youth, a world where Howdy Doody, I Like Ike, the Atomic Café, hot rods, Elvis and scares over lead-lined fridges and Nigel Kneale’s sci-fi were mixed in with ancient idols and primeval myth, all artefacts in a madcap cultural centrifuge. Ready Player One is an attempt to offer an equivalent for a generation that followed, the one Spielberg helped foster, but also one that reflects the change in experience, casting Wade/Parzifal as the geek-culture inheritor of Jones. There’s an interesting gap between Spielberg’s ode to the ‘80s and his own style: back in the ‘80s, of course, he made movies that moved majestically on the strains of John Williams’ scores rather than pop hits like Van Halen’s “Jump” and Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams Come True” as pop up on the soundtrack here (scoring duties are taken by Alan Silvestri, who drops in hints of his Back to the Future theme at appropriate moments). But, of course, the point here is curated culture. I liked the fact that not all the geekery is too popular, either: the film spares space for cult anime and David Lynch’s Dune (1984) as well as more imposing landmarks like King Kong (1933) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).
The major irony here is that for the most part Spielberg has erased his own work from the matrix, except in the form of Jurassic Park’s tyrannosaur. But, of course, he’s everywhere in it; he’s creating the amphitheatre for all of this, just as Jaws (1975) is often cited, with a certain degree of accuracy, as the birth of the modern blockbuster style. All through the film I couldn’t shake the feeling it was a response in part not simply to Spielberg’s current assessment of his place in the pop culture hierarchy, but also to the great crisis facing that world, its abandonment of new ideas – a problem the film seems on the face of it to be perpetuating. But it’s also a prod, not simply to sometimes look past the comforting womb of favourite things to look at the way things are actually run and served up to us, but also to recognise that those things are all the product of a creator, who is in turn inspired by another creator. One of the later images in the film sees Wade confronted by the image of the young Halliday, a kid playing video games, destined to fashion great things but in turn just another fan. Spielberg might even be commenting on Lucas abandoning his intellectual property to Disney. To watch the Disney-shepherded Star Wars films is to no longer see an artist, however commercial and populist, responding to their own shifting identity and sensibility over the years but to see carefully screened, hired talents presenting what are at their best glorified fan fiction and at worst corporate franchise protection.
Ready Player One is certainly a hymn to popular iconography, and rather self-evidently a commentary by Spielberg on his own career as an artist who’s managed to win a rare place for himself inside a system and an industry but who never quite feels comfortable in that system. It’s also an attempt to sensitise the audience into greater awareness that iconography can persist beyond its creators but the creators are still vital not just to the process of genesis but for the audience’s understanding and sense of affinity with the work – the notion that artist and audience are connecting on levels both overt and subliminal, the concerns and emotions they share. The in-built irony here of course is that to put across its theme Ready Player One engages in this practice at an extreme – the rights clearances alone surely needed an army of lawyers as thick as the avatar horde Parzifal unleashes upon IOI. Spielberg has Cline and Penn swap out one of the books reference points for one of Spielberg’s own favourite films. The heroes venture into an unnervingly fetishistic recreation of the environs of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1981), where the elevator filled with blood and the taunting call of the twin girls unsettle and terorise, and the naked ghost lady tantalises Aech before trying to kill her. Nolan meets I-R0k on Planet Doom under the wreck of a Martian machine from The War of the Worlds (1953), another lightning rod for the director.
The recourse to Halliday’s records and attempt to parse the mysteries of his life recalls another founding text of modern cinema in general, Citizen Kane (1941), complete with a twist on the idea of Rosebud as raw material for communal dreaming: the absence of Halliday from his own life, his emotional failures, like his inability to kiss his great love and failure to take her dancing, incorporated into the stuff of his art and his message. Halliday had fallen for Kira (Perdita Weeks), but their one date was a flop, and she eventually ended up marrying his business partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), an event that left Halliday perpetually lovelorn and also seemed to push him to force Ogden out of his company, and to reach the secret of the second key Parzifal, Art3mis, and their pals must understand Halliday himself, his regrets and mistakes. Parzifal is gifted with a token from the archive’s snooty custodian as the first person to ever grasp the significance of Kira’s name in part because of its general absence from the database, a subject of such special pain that it could only be retained is a singular totem and clue. Parzifal/Wade’s insight comes from his identification with Halliday as he’s faced with his own moment of romantic truth with Art3mis/Samantha.
The flaw of the creator is the flaw of the creation, the dead points and blind spots in a conjured world reflecting the problems of growth found in turn in its architect – one reason why no single act of creation can embrace and speak for everyone. Spielberg’s collaboration with Rylance reaches its third instalment here, and it sees the hints given by his earlier roles for the director that Spielberg’s been using Rylance as a stand-in become more definite. In Bridge of Spies, he played a man caught between political blocs nominally in service to one who’d rather be painting, and the bullied, ageing hermit in The BFG whose truest connection is still to children. Here he’s glimpsed as Halliday, a droning savant both proud of his works but also diffident about their meaning in the face of looming mortality and handover. Of course, Nolan could also be read as another face of self-assessment, the mogul who’s clawed his way to the heart of a large industry, relied upon to keep small armies of passionate people pointed in one direction and expected to deliver profits as well as art with gruelling consistency. But Ready Player One is a great movie experience because a lot of the referential and theoretical stuff is rich and fun, but also supernal to the basic thrust of the plot, which is something both more essential and entirely apt, as the young heroes try to stick it to The Man and claim a legacy for themselves, as well as fighting for, well, net neutrality, open-source culture, and creative rights.
Spielberg’s vision of a not-too-distant dystopia is effective in its own right in a way that sharply contrasts the delirious colour and spectacle of the Oasis because it feels recognisable. His vision of the Stacks as a high-rise mating of favela and trailer park, the general air of rundown infrastructure and shortage in life made up for by the fantastical plenty in the Oasis, the omnipresent drone surveillance, cunningly tweaks the familiar and pushes it to an extreme. The early surveys of the Stacks see Spielberg’s roving camera peering through windows at the absurdity of people in their various situations, enacting their online fantasies in the physical world, the kind of extended, diorama-like shot Spielberg used a lot in Minority Report and purveys in a similar fashion here with a puckish sense of humans in their various spaces, viewed as slightly absurd phenomena in their little boxes and tailored experiences in a future where nobody can quite escape reality but can’t face it either.
A scene reminiscent of Wayne’s World (1992) sees Nolan carefully coached by earpiece on his small army of advisors as he tries to win over Wade by posing as a true-blue geek. But IOI’s meanness is not simply virtual: the basis of the company’s business method is buying up people’s virtual debts and forcing them into “loyalty centers,” essentially a form of virtual indenture. Samantha hates IOI for shoving her father into one of these, and follows in his footsteps when she allows herself to be captured by IOI goons to give Wade a chance to get away. She’s chained in a cabinet with a virtual reality helmet locked on her head, forced to toil in the Oasis for the company, in a scene that’s actually rather more effectively nightmarish than many a more overt act of cruelty on screen. Natch, her pals soon get down to trying to rescue her. A great little joke early in the film, the sight of Nolan’s Oasis password written on a post-it note in his fancy VR pod to aid a dodgy memory, proves to be a plot key, as Wade’s sharpness for remembering such detail lets him and his cadre hack Nolan’s feed and fool him long enough to think he’s at their mercy, obliging him to help free Samantha.
Samantha in turn infiltrates the Sixers’ ranks and starts harming the IOI operation from within. Meanwhile Nolan is trying to ensure none of the Gunters can beat him to solving the last problem to get at the Easter Egg by sealing off the citadel Halliday built on the Oasis realm called Planet Doom with a magical device, set in motion, amusingly and inevitably, with an Elvish phrase out of The Lord of the Rings, and Samantha sets about trying to find the key to lifting the shield whilst Wade-as-Parzifal lays siege to the citadel with an army called forth from the eternal realms of nerddom, leading to the hilarious spectacle of 3 or 4 generations’ worth of beloved trash icons doing battle out in Mordor. Such is the film’s affection for the loves of its characters that even the Sixers and IOI’s small army of geeks are given their own heroic lustre as they dedicate themselves to thrashing out the conundrums and solving the unsolvable gameplay, and watching their joy in seeing Parzifal, just another one of them on the truest level, winning out.
Perhaps the most charming aspect of Ready Player One is that it taps a vein of romanticism that Spielberg too often keeps under wraps, particularly in the sequence of Parzifal and Art3mis begin to fall in love in a zero-gravity disco where couples spin in weightless joy and the Saturday Night Fever (1977) dance floor can be summoned with a click of the fingers. The lively musical sensibility Spielberg was able to animated in 1941 (1979) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) manages to free itself again, if briefly, here. Sheridan, who first caught eyes as a kid in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and who’s all grown up now, and Cooke, who’s quickly proving herself one of the most engaging talents around after transcending weak vehicles like The Quiet Ones (2014) and The Limehouse Golem (2017), pull off the film’s quietest but most emotionally vital bit as Wade draws aside the hair Samantha uses to hide her birthmark, and pronounces it unimportant. It’s a lovely little moment keen to the ebb and flow of strength in people, as Samantha, who specialises in seeming like a chitinous being chiselled out of raw confidence online submits to her ultimate fear, and Wade, who’s been longing to prove himself as a real person, doesn’t fail her. It charges the rest of the film with freewheeling humanist energy.
Amongst contemporary filmmakers, few have the gift to make a movie where you go in to see Voltron battling Mothra or something, and have you come out thinking about the first girl you kissed. But Spielberg still has it, and that’s what turns Ready Player One from a potentially tiresome, gimmick or throwaway bit of nonsense into one of the most surprisingly galvanising and entertaining movies I’ve seen in the past few years. Ready Player One builds to a scene where anointed inheritor encounters the digital ghost of his hero, and recognises part of his own responsibility is to evolve past Halliday, to face the real world and the consequences of living in it as well as celebrating the joy of creation, and obliges to make everyone get some sort of a life and start dealing with the problems before them, as well as the pleasures. Here Ready Player One reminded me of another Movie Brat’s more thoroughly anarchic, if less well-orchestrated, poison pen letter to his art, industry, and audience, John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. (1997), where Snake Plissken plunged the world into pre-modern darkness to cleanse its soul and mind. Spielberg is more reasonable. How about two days a week, just for a trial?