Rebooting (and Redeeming) ‘Ready Player One’

Steven Spielberg adapting Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One sounds like a match made in heaven. King of the blockbuster, master stager extraordinaire, the rare filmmaker who deftly blurs the line between live-action and special effects. The novel itself has a filmic syllabus ranging from John Hughes, Stephen King novels turned movies, and late ‘70s & ‘80s sci-fi horror, so ideally Spielberg’s the one to navigate Cline’s vast pop culture terrain. He either inspired or directly had a hand in producing this nostalgic crop of cinema. So, why doesn’t Ready Player One feel like homecoming?

With West Side Story out this weekend, I decided to revisit where we last left off with Spielberg. You might be thinking, Why does Ready Player One need redeeming? or, Of all of Spielberg’s movies, why THAT one???

I can only get a feel for a film’s response based on my inner circle and the limits of my news feed. My rough estimate is 60/40. Majority thought Ready Player One was so-so because it didn’t have as much references as the book (that’s right, Cline’s book has MORE), or the heavy VFX-factor left a lot to be desired for Spielberg’s usual live-action mania. Those who got a kick out of the film enjoyed it for the fun, if otherwise disposable escapism. Now, I’m not telling you where YOU ought to stand on the movie. If you’re a fan, great! If not, I totally understand.

There’s lots to enjoy about Ready Player One off the bat. A retro soundtrack, an easter egg hunter’s wet dream, aided by characters who ooze pop culture like their primary language, and a virtual gaming reality that went mainstream and took over the world – all of this wrapped in a delectable Willy Wonka premise. I might prefer live-action over CGI, but boy does the digital world allow Spielberg to go utter BANANAS.

Spielberg had just done The BFG with actor Mark Rylance, who was his muse following Bridge of Spies. Their collaboration this time around carries a sullen weight. At the start of Ready Player One, James Halliday is dead. Creator and owner of the Oasis, his entire estate is now up for grabs and corporations every which way see the next money-making frontier. But Halliday gives the little guy a chance in this all-out sprint for the Oasis, concocting a super egg hunt designed to weed out the fat cat opportunists (represented by IOI and Nolan Sorrento) from the “true” gamer.

On one hand, Ready Player One is a love letter to the audience, and the contest symbolizes a level playing field for the consumer. IOI might have Amazon warehouses loyalty centers filled with worker bees across the globe, but Halliday’s contest is designed to give the self-obsessed fan the upper hand. The critique, however, goes both ways – lobbed at corporate giants AND fandoms.

We live in a time of extraordinary monopolies. AT&T owns Warner Bros., Disney owns 20th Century Fox, Amazon owns MGM, Viacom owns CBS and Paramount, etc. The devastating part is that we cheered for these mergers, didn’t we? We wanted properties like X-Men and Fantastic Four in the rightful hands of Marvel Studios (owned by Disney) because… they know what’s best for the characters??? Fair, but not once did we consider the impact this would have on the entertainment landscape.

These parent companies aren’t strictly movie studios, mind you. So the goal isn’t to make one good movie at a time anymore—it’s to keep you in a revolving door of “content.” The MCU used to be a film franchise. Now it’s a ride at Disneyland, a campus, a hotel, an upcoming cruise line. (Soon it’ll be a whole goddamn city!) Movies are now trailers for the theme park instead of the other way around. This sounds like a never-ending party for the fans, but it also sounds like we’re NEVER leaving this place. Hell, remember when there was one or two superhero movies a year? Studios today are so far ahead of the demand that they can supply content before we even think to ask.

Consider this scene. Sorrento is demonstrating to IOI’s board the massive potential for profit should the Oasis fall under their umbrella. None of this space is real; they’re colonizing the player’s HUD within the artificial reality of the Oasis. A player’s attention span is literally up for grabs. It also looks alarmingly like a studio’s release slate for the foreseeable future.

This is why Ready Player One feels so mournful rather than triumphant. Because Spielberg is lamenting his role in all of this.

Jaws in 1975 practically invented the summer blockbuster as we know it. It was the highest grossing movie at that time, and thus, summer movie season was the game-changer for Hollywood. George Lucas’ Star Wars: A New Hope came out in summer 1977 and a trend was in place. E.T. was another summer release and it made double the box office of Jaws.

Trends in Hollywood are born at such a rate that I don’t think we notice it anymore because by the time we do, suddenly it’s everywhere we look. It’s the culture we live and breathe. Now we’ve found ourselves in a blockbuster climate no longer contingent upon a season. Tentpoles can hit big in February (Black Panther), April (The Winter Soldier), August (Guardians of the Galaxy), September (Shang-Chi), at the start of November (Thor: Ragnarok, Eternals). Summer movie season is all year-round. The quality of these movies don’t matter like they used to. (2016’s Batman v Superman was HUGE, and so was Suicide Squad.) They just have to be there. And before you know it, it’s here on Disney Plus!

It sounds pretentious to crown Spielberg as the guy who shaped our popular culture, but when MCU directors list Spielberg as their biggest influence, it’s harder to dismiss. They’re fans too! Not to mention the movies themselves go on to reference Spielberg, visually or literally. The opening of Guardians of the Galaxy is Raiders of the Lost Ark in space. Back to the Future, too, gets a shoutout in Avengers: Endgame, which Spielberg produced and was directed by Robert Zemeckis. In the Oasis, there’s a thing Wade Watts uses called the “Zemeckis cube” which can turn back time. (Are your eyes twitching?) Characters in the MCU reference so many other movies whether throwaway or meaningful that it’s DIZZYING.

Whether you’d say Spielberg is responsible for all this is entirely up to you. In the context of Ready Player One, he takes responsibility anyway. Though he’s hardly boasting, rather he’s owning up to it in a way that a kid in trouble approaches his parents, chin down, because he wrecked his train set and also the entire living room is on fire. As much as I LOVE Ready Player One ’s bonkers final showdown, the sheer number of IPs and referencing is a dispiriting sign of where we’re at in pop culture.

Nostalgia, as it turns out, can literally be weaponized. Properties like Iron Giant, Gundam, and fucking CHUCKY all get a shoutout and then some. This nostalgic branding alone is enough to sell tickets. The whole battlefield on Planet Doom is swarming with visual references, damn near collapsing on itself with the number of licensing involved. It’s a hunt to spot the most references in any one frame, and that’s all there is to it. Because after you’ve spotted them or identified which franchises they belong to, right down to the sound effects, the thrill is gone. Like the Iron Giant giving a thumbs up before being consumed by lava straight outta Terminator 2. It’s all about meaningless nods to pop culture, nothing more.

When I first saw Ready Player One, I thought it was Spielberg trying to fit in with a blockbuster landscape that had grown above and beyond him. I realize now that Ready Player One is his eulogy to the blockbuster. He’s waving goodbye. That was the bitter feeling I couldn’t reconcile at the time. Slowly, I started to see what he was getting at since that Spring of 2018. The movie came out a month before Infinity War, before the MCU went supersonic.

Spielberg that year was tapped to helm an adaptation of DC’s Blackhawk, which felt like resignation; you either do a superhero movie for the studio or you die. (This was before WB retooled their DCEU strategy. There has been little word or development on Blackhawk since then.) The next notable blow was Spielberg handing over the directing gig of Indiana Jones 5. But the biggest blow was his super-deal with Netflix. That’s right, the man who once split hairs over Netflix movies being “television movies” ultimately said fuck it and signed on the dotted line.

It’s a sign of the times, of filmmakers and auteurs whom Hollywood once gave the keys of the industry to, and now can no longer fund their projects. Because studios are more invested in superheroes and cinematic universes that can readily mined for whole trilogies and a line of TV shows out the gate. Alfonso Cuaron, David Fincher, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, and now Spielberg found a lifeline at the big streamers. I couldn’t have predicted this a decade ago when Netflix started producing original content and it seemed like such a joke they’d make anything “awards worthy.” Now Netflix has got the biggest and most storied filmmakers ever to do it on their payroll.

Spielberg is James Halliday in the story, passing the blockbuster baton to the next generation.

Spielberg, of course, isn’t as cynical about this as I am. He’s earnest, a wholly sentimental filmmaker. Continuing the analogy, if Spielberg is Halliday, then Wade Watts could be anyone. He’s the fan in all of us. Spielberg understands that newer generations are picking up the creative tools and becoming obsessed with movies faster than he ever could. He spoke through the cinematic language of the camera. Us on the other side of the screen can now literally speak his movies. We grew up watching and had our childhood imagination shaped by him.

If Spielberg once took us away into the screen like Peter Pan, then Ready Player One is a self-reflection of the imaginative process all these years later. Maybe we don’t need Peter Pan, not all the time like we used to. Even Wendy outgrows the need for Peter. As a deeper self-reflection for the audience, perhaps we shouldn’t live in this shared pop culture space too fiercely.

We can change the skin of our avatars to the very comic book characters we watch on screen. There have been movie tie-in games since games were invented. (Including E.T. on the Atari!) There are also video game adaptations, toys turned into movies, movies turned into merchandise and so on. This has gone past the point of consumption just two decades into the 21st century. It’s a vortex, and it’s only getting bigger.  

The interaction and emotions might be real, but the space itself is a fiction. It’s all fake, make believe. While it might sound awesome to do, you can’t live in Neverland forever. We shouldn’t. Spielberg, then, takes us home whether some of us want to or not. Upon winning the Halliday challenge, Wade Watts makes a “controversial” choice by closing down the Oasis every Tuesday and Thursday for players to spend time in the real world. I think that about says it.

I’m making it sound like Spielberg’s telling us dorks to touch some grass. The longer-form answer is that, for a man who once beckoned us to the theater, he’s now begging we find a connection with each other that doesn’t rely on 5G or a shared taste in media—if only for the sake of our attention spans that companies are actively plotting to take over and monetize.

In the interest of wanting to end a blog post this way… yeah, Spielberg’s telling us to touch grass.

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