Adapted from Ernest Cline's bestseller, Ready Player One is Steven Spielberg's return to form as entertainer, in my book his finest incarnation. Which when you think about it isn't saying a lot, but is saying something.
The plot is Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket gimmick yoked to the mystery premise of Citizen Kane, set in a world resembling Neuromancer if Mark Zuckerberg were presiding intelligence. The late James Halliday (Mark Rylance) in creating OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation)--a virtual reality environment shared by practically everyone in 2045 to escape their grim dystopia--has also created the ultimate Easter Egg: follow the clues littered throughout Halliday's digitally fragmented life find the egg and (as if one held said Ticket in hand) win control of the chocolate factory, namely OASIS.
The plot and Cline's book are at most an excuse for the filmmaker to celebrate pop culture, with mentions allusions quotations from music movies videogames TV shows of the 70s 80s 90s 00s (But not books--isn't that odd?); more it's the director's latest best chance to prove himself a special-effects master in a world lousy with special effects.
Spielberg makes a strong case: in a jawdropping eyepopping early sequence the hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) hurtles down the rolling curves of Harlem River Drive in a DeLorean with sections of road toppling--dropping cars to lower levels--or swinging up to fling them in the air; he's pursued by a roaring T-Rex speeds past a Batmobile teetering at the edge of a crumpled overpass is confronted at the finish line by a huge hugely angry Kong. Spielberg takes on Michael Bay Robert Zemeckis James Cameron Peter Jackson and the Wachowskis among others and beats them at their own game. Spielberg's movie is the only game around, a Rube Goldberg contraption louder than any gasoline explosion bigger than any ocean liner (with iceberg) more powerful than any One Ring more intricate than any flux-capacitating sports car. To date, anyway.
In all that tumult Spielberg inserts cunning little gracenotes: tour of a man's life as a series of lovingly realized museum tableaus, the sequence in turn a parody of the visit to the Walter P. Thatcher Memorial Library in Kane*; makeout sequence where the girl's handprints slide suggestively down the nooks and crannies of a boy's immersion suit; third act set in the back of a truck, the truck doors opening and shutting like stage curtains to reveal further plot developments. Digital effects may constantly threaten Spielberg's identity as filmmaker but never quite overwhelm it; he's still a whiz at playing with the camera frame, with editing rhythms, with motion color imagery, with the very idea of 'play'--of huge and/or intricate objects startlingly presented as huge and/or intricate toys.
*(Spielberg's Kane worship feels problematic though considering he once (reportedly) turned down a proposal from Welles; was he so in love with the man's past works that he refused to finance the man himself?)
Along the way Spielberg inserts a lengthy excerpt from The Shining the single most chilling moment being that first shot of the perfectly reproduced Overlook Hotel, down to John Alcott's bluish winter light (Is it an actual set? A digital rendering?). The excerpt quickly becomes a jokey interlude, Spielberg presumably realizing he could never capture Kubrick's monolithic sense of menace, instead settling for frenetic chases and cheap laughs. I like frenetic chases and cheap laughs as much as the next guy but Kubrick's horror was something special, Spielberg's parody merely fun.
By film's end (skip the rest of the article if you plan to see the movie!) Watts and Halliday meet in the latter's childhood bedroom where Halliday explains to Watts the secret to a full fruitful life, and what all this--his life, OASIS, reality itself--ultimately means. Nothing particularly new, only you sense that Spielberg at seventy-one and father of seven children wants to impart the wisdom of the ages to us through his fully digitized godlike avatar. Nice lecture; interestingly lit framed acted, but still a lecture.
Ready Player One is a well-made thrill sensation, the best Spielberg has done in years** head and shoulders above the achievements of many inferiors and most contemporaries. If in the end that statement doesn't amount to much may be because Spielberg's movie--his entire career, almost--lacks a sense of threat of real danger; lacks the thrilling possibility watching his pictures might shake you to your core. Spielberg after all is said and done isn't so much an artist as he is a craftsman--superbly gifted, but basically a straightshooter with few layers beneath. Looking into Halliday's dreamy eyes listening to his softspoken voice you can tell the man-god (God-child?) hasn't a single sardonic bone in his body, that his inner landscape contains vast expanses, entire continents free of irony. He's meant to comfort not criticize; at most he admonishes, mildly.
**(For the record my favorite Spielberg remains his ruinously epic 1941, still in my book superior for three reasons: 1) it's entirely nondigital (was made to be fair before digital was ever a thing); 2) it's almost completely syrupfree (thanks to the influence of satirical anarchists Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale--when Ned Beatty's clueless dad does in fact express a noble sentiment near picture's end his house topples down a hill); and 3) it's Spielberg exercising his talent for visual play with little or no regard for the audience (hence the rare boxoffice failure))
There's plenty to criticize if you wish. Spielberg pays homage to American culture with a dash of Japanese pop; Europe Africa other Asian countries barely rate a mention. He concentrates on science fiction and fantasy, peers myopically at narrative fiction without considering alternatives, confines himself to the past forty years as if the previous millennia never happened. Spielberg fails to note the incongruity in revolutionaries seizing control of a mighty corporation in a motion picture produced by a corporation almost as mighty--if references to Batman Superman and The Shining abound you have Warner Studios to thank (and Warner lawyers, for cameos from other studios' properties); if you want an even richer comic paradox the movie should ideally have been done by Disney, which owns everything else under the sun.
"Reality is real" Rylance's Halliday informs us; Wade responds by turning OASIS off on Tuesdays and Thursdays--hardly what you'd call an earth-shattering decision (for starters he could have thrown in Sunday). I see Charlton Heston pulling everything down around him without a moment's hesitation; at the very least he can sink to his knees on a wet beach shaking fist at sky and screaming: "God damn you! God damn you all to hell!" I feel his pain.
First published in Businessworld 4.6.18