Ready Player One
Directed by Steven Spielberg
By Noel Vera
ADAPTED from Ernest Cline’s best-seller, Ready Player One is Steven Spielberg returning 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 much like Neuromancer on steroids. 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 grimly dystopian world — has also created the ultimate Easter Egg. Follow the clues littered throughout his life and (as in Kane) you will find the egg; find the egg and (as with Wonka’s golden ticket) you will have won control of the whole enchilada, namely OASIS.
The plot and Cline’s book are at most an excuse for the filmmaker to celebrate pop culture, with mentions allusions and quotations from music, movies, videogames, TV shows of the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, ’00s (But not books — isn’t that strange?); 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 jaw-dropping, eye-popping, early sequence, the hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) hurtles down the rolling curves of Harlem River Drive in a DeLorean with sections of road collapsing — dropping cars to lower levels — or levering up to fling them into air; he’s pursued by a roaring T-Rex, speeds past a Batmobile teetering at the edge of a crumpled overpass, and at the finish line confronts 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 thunderclap, brighter than any lightning bolt, more intricate than any clockwork mechanism. To date, anyway.
In all that tumult, Spielberg inserts clever little gracenotes: a visit through a man’s life presented 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; a makeout sequence where you can see the girl’s handprints slide suggestively up and down the nooks and crannies of the boy’s immersion suit; a third act taking place in the back of a truck, the truck doors opening and shutting like stage curtains to reveal a series of plot developments.
Along the way Spielberg inserts a lengthy excerpt from The Shining, the single most chilling moment being that first shot when we see the Overlook Hotel perfectly reproduced, 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 couldn’t replicate Kubrick’s monolithic sense of menace, instead going for frenetic chases and cheap laughs.
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 living a full life, and what all this — OASIS, reality — ultimately means. Nothing particularly new, only you get this sense that Spielberg at 71 and father of seven children wants to impart words of wisdom to us the audience through his avatar (Rylance’s Halliday). It’s a nice lecture; brief and interestingly lit, framed, acted, but still a lecture.
A well-made thrill sensation, the best Spielberg has done in years, and head and shoulders above most of his 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 subversion, of threat, of real danger; a sense that watching his pictures can change your view of things, shake you to your core (if this sounds like a summing up, the movie seems to cry out for one, of both work and maker). 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 underneath. The man sets the tone, which in turn informs Rylance’s performance of Halliday; looking at Rylance’s dreamy eyes, listening to his softspoken voice. You can tell he hasn’t a single sardonic bone in his body. He’s meant to comfort not criticize; at most he admonishes, mildly.
There’s plenty to criticize if you wish. Spielberg pays homage to American pop culture with a dash of Japanese pop; European. African, and other Asian cultures barely rate a mention. He concentrates on science fiction and fantasy, peers myopically at narrative fiction without considering alternatives, confines himself to the past 40 years as if the previous centuries never happened. Spielberg fails to note the rich irony of revolutionaries taking 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 mention of other studios’ properties); if you want even richer irony, the movie should ideally have been done by Disney, which owns everything else under the sun.
“Reality is real” Rylance’s Halliday finally 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 can see Charlton Heston pulling it all down around him without a moment’s hesitation; at the very least he can sink to his knees on a wet beach shaking a fist at the sky and screaming. “God damn you! God damn you all to hell!” I feel his pain.
MTRCB Rating: PG