There are two conspicuous cultural absences from Ready Player One, the new film based on Ernest Cline’s bestselling novel. One is George Lucas — there are some small nods to Star Wars, but it doesn’t play the fundamental role one would expect in a movie to which nostalgia and fandom are so central. The other is the film’s own director, Steven Spielberg. Again, his filmography isn’t completely absent from Ready Player One — there is a great sequence involving a dinosaur from Jurassic Park, and the DeLorean from the Amblin-produced Back to the Future appears throughout. Yet Spielberg has clearly chosen to downplay his own importance to today’s nerd culture. Most of his early success laid the foundation for the culture endlessly referenced in this story; he created a template for mixing genre elements (science fiction, fantasy, adventure, and action) with sophisticated filmmaking, in the process creating some of the 20th Century’s most enduring art and culture. Almost everything referenced in Ready Player One, whether a movie, TV show, or video game, owes some debt to the work of Steven Spielberg — which is why he’s paradoxically a strange choice to direct. He understands the pull of nostalgia, having manipulated it himself for decades, but obsesses over very different things. The pop culture that animates Ready Player One holds little sway over Spielberg, but he’s enough of a craftsman to still create something that’s often engaging, and almost always visually stunning.
It’s 2045, and the major cities of Earth have turned into rapidly expanding slums. (Columbus, Ohio, is the fastest growing city on the planet, so obviously something has gone horribly wrong.) In this future world, the main economic driver and source of entertainment is the Oasis, a virtual reality domain where players can lead almost any life they wish, doing nearly anything they can imagine. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in a forlorn little trailer stacked precariously on supports atop half a dozen others, but he spends most of his time logged into the Oasis, where he’s represented by an anime-style avatar known as Parzival. (For those unfamiliar with Arthurian legend or the Wagner opera, Parzival/Perceval/Percival/Parsifal was the original knight to find the Holy Grail in early texts).
It has been five years since the death of James Halliday (latter-day Spielberg regular Mark Rylance), the creator of the Oasis. Halliday left a cryptic video message recorded just prior to his death revealing that three keys were spread throughout the Oasis that can unlock an Easter egg granting full control of the cyberspace, as well as great fortune to the discoverer. Watts is determined to find the egg, but years have passed with little to show for it. In addition to the regular gamers hoping for fame and fortune, a massive corporation named IOI sends players in droves to search for the egg and its keys. These players —anonymous storm troopers dressed in gray and black — are known as sixers, due to the string of six numbers that identifies each one in lieu of a name. IOI and its CEO, Nolan Serrento (Ben Mendelsohn) are determined to wrest control away from Halliday’s estate in order to monetize every element of the Oasis through advertising and paid subscriptions.
I’ve resisted reading Cline’s novel since its publication in 2011, partly because its brand of referential worship to pop culture of years past can so easily turn malignant (see the racist and sexist tirades against The Last Jedi). Obsession with culture makes it difficult — sometimes even impossible — to admit when a cultural artifact’s supremacy has waned. But there’s also something troubling about this brand of fandom that hasn’t existed with other forms of art. There are plenty of people who love the novels of Philip Roth or Thomas Pynchon, who have been irreversibly changed by them, yet those works haven’t consumed their lives the way Star Wars or certain video games have. Perhaps my perceptions of the novel are way off (it wouldn’t be the first time), but the culture referenced in Ready Player One too often seems like an escape, an evasion, rather than a coping mechanism.
Spielberg seems to understand that; his film is adept at throwing in cultural references and nods to fandom — and he has certainly done his homework. Yet it’s obvious that he isn’t drawn to these things for the same reason as his audience. If he has an affection for the DeLorean, it’s because it reminds him of helping launch Robert Zemeckis’ career with one of the most successful films of the 1980s. If he takes delight in a throwaway joke about the Millennium Falcon, it’s as a wink to his old friend and occasional collaborator, George Lucas. When Lucas and Spielberg created the Indiana Jones films, they were referencing their childhood love of adventure serials, but they weren’t making a faithful reproduction designed to evoke their childhood memories to the dot. They were both funneling the art and culture that shaped them into their own works of new, mature art (to varying degrees of success).
In Ready Player One, Spielberg is just going through the motions of endless cultural references. They’re fun to see, but there’s no heart behind them. No one can craft an action sequence in such an intelligent and tasteful manner as Spielberg, and he doesn’t disappoint, but films are more than compilations of cool visuals and childhood references. Spielberg’s brand of nostalgia isn’t tied to movie characters or video games — it’s tied to people, and specifically the families they’re part of. His scenes with real-life characters are nowhere near as visually spectacular as the Oasis scenes, yet they pulse with a sense of life lacking in his neon wonderland.
There is one exception, a sequence that pays tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Spielberg is on home turf here — he was friends with Stanley Kubrick, and his admiration for the horror masterpiece is evident. He places the digital characters of the Oasis directly into a live-action version of The Shining, built around Kubrick’s original footage. It’s equally silly and chilling, but you can tell Spielberg is finally showing us the art that he adores, not just the culture he thinks his audience cares about.
Aside from the bravura Shining sequence, the film’s most moving moments occur in digitized flashbacks of Halliday’s life. We see him as a lonely boy playing video games in his bedroom, then later during the turbulent years of creating his masterpiece. Rylance plays him with a Southern California drawl, but beneath the quasi-surfer exterior is a deep sadness that threatens to overwhelm. His version of Halliday is a man searching for connections he’s too afraid to forge. (Watts clumsily refers to this as his “Rosebud.”) Rylance is one of the greatest actors alive today, and he manages to be the most compelling part of Ready Player One, despite his limited screen time.
Ready Player One was always going to be a flawed property, something that played off the basest, shallowest parts of fan culture. Spielberg can’t completely fix it — he can only give it glimmers of a heart. But even a hint of his usual magic is still something worth seeing.