Ready Player One is released on Easter weekend, possibly as a wink to the eggy theme of the film. Probably as a loss leader considering Spielberg, once an unstoppable box office force, hasn’t had a genuine blockbuster hit since War of the Worlds. Coming a mere three months after The Post, his latest abides by the Spielberg twofer rule: always producing a blockbuster and an awards player in the same year (See Jurassic Park/Schindler’s List, Munich/War of the Worlds, Tintin/War Horse, etc.). Its an intense output to rival Hawks, and Spielberg has in the last 15 years crafted some of the most interesting films of his career, keeping up with the vast changes in CGI in the process. The BFG, a Dahl adaptation which recalls Hook in its slight childishness, displayed a terrific understanding of how to utilise motion capture; elaborate moving shots with characters of various sizes interacting and bouncing around the frame, a surprisingly complex sense of scale and spatial dynamics for a children’s film.
Ready Player One is an adaptation of Ernest Klein’s VR fantasia on geek themes, set in a dystopian world so bleak that most people are living their lives in the Oasis, an online universe where you can play Minecraft dressed as a Halo character. Mark Rylance plays Halliday, an 80s obsessive who invented the Oasis and offers three clues to unlock the keys to his inheritance. Yikes indeed. If you can see past the cringe, the setup does offer for Spielberg an opportunity for reflection on the state of pop culture and perhaps even on own impact on how we consume media.
Yet in the overstuffed collection of references and bombastic set pieces, it is hard to find such meditation or even self-awareness. Hilariously, the ‘resistance’ characters don’t have any intention of changing the real world, just of gaining agency over the online one. You could read something about the net neutrality struggle here, or the resigned stench of late capitalism. The types, resistance fighters, corporate stooges, are treated with as much flippant referentialism as a Chucky doll. The resistance isn’t interested in tearing down the corporation or the Oasis, but in using the rules of Halliday to improve their online lifestyle. If the goal is to live happily in a world created by an anti-social 80s fanboy, then we’re just trading one dystopia for another. Likewise, the film spends far too much time with Ben Mendelsohn’s corporate villain Nolan Sorrento, yet doesn’t flesh out any real motivation or real critique of his goal to amass bitcoins (that’s what he was up to, right?).
Sequences set inside a simulation of Mark Rylance’s memory are thrilling in a Blow-Up way. The plucky if bland hero played by Tye Sheridan pauses, replays, zooms in on the scene. It suggests Spielberg’s own CGI liberation from the bounds of filmmaking reality. Now everything can be painted by a computer, he can put a camera anywhere, to any scale. The sequence set inside Kubrick’s The Shining shows this off. Stunning in how it incorporates footage from the film and toys with the iconography in a fast, winking fashion, it nonetheless begs the question of what might have been. We’ve seen Spielberg experiment with the dichotomy between his and Kubrick’s approaches before, in A.I. So if Spielberg truly wanted to enact a self-summative reflection on his career, wouldn’t it be braver to set a sequence like this inside E.T.? The film is so set on enacting its quest structure, even as it points out the reductive qualities of cultural adherence, that it misses what’s truly joyous about the film.
The dance sequence is another such swing and a miss. That swing is an explosion of psychedelia and writhing, weightless CGI bodies straight out of Holy Motors, which is predictably marred by an annoying Bee Gees reference. This is the constant push/pull of the film. Glorious cinematic imagination bordering on the transcendent, undercut by obvious characterisation and lazy references. It gestures towards the woke with the ‘reveal’ that a brutish orc is, in reality, a black lesbian. The idea that people aren’t necessarily who they say they are online is less interesting in 2018 than the possibility that virtual reality can be used to rewrite identity and power structures. Spielberg’s interest in the former holds the film back from being a truly interesting excursion into the current online climate. Particularly in a post-gamergate world, it seems fairly negligent that Spielberg doesn’t care to comment beyond the tacked on moral that we need to spend a bit more time in the real world, a conclusion that has simply no bearing to what the rest of the film is telling its audience.
But it’s an easy film to criticise in this way, and the pleasures are so numerative that, at least in the moment, they are overpowering. It’s just great to see a film where the camera starts a scene in one place and ends in another without cutting, and the elements within the frame reassemble in a natural way that implies status and character. Is it worrisome that I was so impressed with this almost invisible direction? So few American films seem to be utilising their potential in this way, rapt by televisual close-ups or affected handheld. Spielberg’s ability to tell his story with simplicity and grace, even in a film as bloated and ideologically confused as Ready Player One, is a marvel that should be cherished.