Steven Spielberg is and probably will be the most successful filmmaker in history. It’s difficult to think of anyone coming around with the same amount of worldwide blockbusters as him, along with some of the most critically acclaimed films from the last 40 years.
Yet even a giant mogul like Spielberg is human, and the unique aspect of his filmography is the fact that even though they remain extremely popular, they can also be deeply personal. Take his latest dive into the blockbuster pool with “Ready Player One”. On the surface It’s a film which is a celebration of 80s pop culture, something Spielberg himself is responsible for creating. The film is sprawling sci-fi adventure story with some exciting set pieces in the vein of classic Spielberg films from the Indiana Jones films to “Minority Report”. But beneath this celebration of nostalgia and nerd culture, we see a film about reflection and possible regret from an aging God of geekdom.
“Ready Player One” is set in the year 2045 where the real world has become too depressing to live in. As one character puts it, it’s where “People decided not to fix the world’s problems, and just tried to out live them.” As an escape from this dystopia lies The Oasis, a virtual world, where basically everything is possible and people can live their lives through the avatars of their choice.
When James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the eccentric creator of The Oasis dies, he creates a game within The Oasis containing an Easter Egg, which once discovered grants the winner complete control to the entire virtual world. It’s up to spunky young man Wade Watts (Ty Sheridan) and his clan of gamers and pop culture enthusiasts to find this Easter Egg before the evil corporate overlords, lead by Sorrento (Ben Mendleson) find it.
For the most part, “Ready Player One” is a film Spielberg excelled at in his old Indiana Jones days featuring action set pieces galore, with an opening car chase, and a clever visit through Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” being standouts. That being said, The Oasis can be a bit much. It’s as if we are bombarded with so many sights and senses, the substance is sometimes lost. The pop culture references come so swiftly, I’m sure loyalists will have fun pausing on shots once the film becomes available on blu-ray to pinpoint all of their favorite movie or game characters.
Spielberg does slow down slightly in parts to give a bit of nuance, and wonderful imagery to the proceedings, such as when Wade is sharing a romantic dance in the air with his romantic interest/partner in crime Samantha (Olivia Cooke). But even these quiet character moments are interrupted too often with the speed and urgency of the plot. Maybe this is just me getting older, and wanting more out of movies than non-stop action, or it could be the problem of the film by having such cardboard cutouts of characters. The main actors aren’t given much chance to leave their stereotypical trappings, even though the cast is likable enough. The exception of this is Rylance as Halliday.
This brings us to the part which I found most interesting about “Ready Player One”, and perhaps the reason Spielberg chose to make this film which is the character of James Halliday himself. Although it is revealed at the beginning Halliday is dead, he does pop up within The Oasis usually as a memory bank containing clues on how to win the game. Portrayed by Rylance, we could see Halliday as an avatar for Spielberg himself, an aging mogul, who built a world of imagination for people to enjoy but coming at a price. You can see Halliday as someone who is happy at what he has created but also as someone who see he may have also created a monster. Spielberg shows this conflict within the character which draws parallels to his work as well.
Here we have a mogul who has created the modern blockbuster with “Jaws”, and giving people films to enjoy. But because of that, we are now at risk of losing smaller films in theatres to more tent-pole franchise fair. Could Spielberg feel responsible or am I just speculating.
I have always felt Steven Spielberg has been a filmmaker first, but can also be a shrewd businessman second. In one sense we have the Spielberg who owns his own movie studio and has his producer credit on every deplorable “Transformers” film, yet we also have the Spielberg who has been able to create deeply personal mainstream films from “E.T.” to “Schindler’s List”, not to mention the only man to have directed French New Wave master Francois Truffaut in a film. There has always been this duality in Spielberg that has made him such a fascinating figure.
But lately we have seen an aging Spielberg making films regarding his legacy. What was “Lincoln” but about a man concerned with leaving his mark on his country despite the odds. Even the small, gentle, children’s fable “The BFG” was an allegory of an elderly man passing on what he knows to a younger generation. Even the sexagenarian version of Indiana Jones in the much maligned “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” speaks to this legacy factor as well, and it continues with “Ready Player One”.
I can’t say “Ready Player One” is entirely successful, but it’s nice that a popular film such as this can be used as a platform for the most successful director of all time. It’s an interesting film to reflect on his legacy, something he may not be sure about.