Steven Spielberg is no stranger to cultural events. The cinematic skies of his career are garlanded with films that became key moments of culture as well as landmark beats of American cinema. Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET The Extra Terrestrial and Jurassic Park all became punctuation points in the timeline of popular culture. Whilst the game has not fully loaded yet to suggest whether Ready Player One can achieve the same immortality, Spielberg’s thirty-second directorial project is a virtual curiosity whose narrative and visual pulses are wholly predicated on an era of popular culture created by the man himself and peers such as Robert Zemeckis, Stanley Kubrick, John Hughes, Stephen King, Nicholas Meyer, and Richard Donner.
It is 2045. Various food, land and bandwidth wars have decimated urbanised cities. Regular people and their communities now live in ‘The Stacks’ – trailer parks piled high like patchwork cabins punctuated by the young and their ability to climb, slide and go off grid when the need arises. Common to many is The OASIS – a game-play world of differing landscapes, themes, abilities, fictional pretences, and hairstyles. Created by the now deceased James Halliday (Mark Rylance), The OASIS is a social introvert’s solution to socialising, winning, and making friends. Echoing Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, here is a world whose dominance and financial fortunes have grown exponentially. Upgrades and new home kit are a social currency. Who needs white goods when you can collect enough points for a new sensor-suit, multi-directional running pad and gloves? Naturally, the governance and ownership of The OASIS is paramount. And with a Willy Wonka-styled hunt devised by Halliday, it is up to a good, but kind player to get the literal keys to the kingdom before corporate vultures render it game over.
Enter Wade (played by young Spielberg lookalike Tye Sheridan), his Travolta-strutting cyber alter-ego Parzival and ‘The High Five’ – a ragtag collection of good-minded game-players who have only ever met on virtual battlegrounds and race-grids. They are also Ready Player One’s biggest creative gamble – avatars. This writer is no fan of James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). A soulless exercise in technological peacocking that renders everyone and everything into the contents of a nine-year-old girl’s bedroom, Avatar suffered from what all CGI heavy movies trip up on – dead eyes and dead characters. The same fate does not hinder Ready Player One. Partly because Spielberg’s kinetic pace and sense of story, wit and invention won’t let it. But also, because – in a 2018 world of photo filtering and carefully cherry picking our own social media identities and how we present ourselves – here the fakery of the avatars is the very point of it all. It’s Tron meets Wreck-It Ralph in Pleasantville (sort of) – and done so with a warmth and humour Avatar never had.
The specifics of Wade’s quest to find three keys hidden in The OASIS by Rylance’s Halliday diverts somewhat from Cline’s original book. The scenarios still hinge on gameplay and computer game culture but draped in more movie dressing. Gameplay – retro or otherwise – doesn’t make for great cinema. Cue the revamped hunt for the second key and the stunningly good fun it has seamlessly splicing our heroes into a very familiar movie. Here, the references to Back to The Future (1985) go beyond Parzival’s DeLorean and a cutely used ‘Zemeckis Cube’ to taking a massive Eighties leaf from Back to the Future Part 2 by fully integrating Wade and his cyber pals into Kubrick’s The Shining for maximum reverential overdrive – and upping the adventure when we realise not all of them know said film. It is less Ready Player One and more Rogue One as the very real presence of The Overlook Hotel, its carpeted corridors, creepy twins, zombie bath ladies and visual quirks of a classic are brought brilliantly back to life with a joyous segue-way leaving us all pondering what is truly possible from our apparently deceased classics. More instances of this could have been welcome (The High Five opening to Temple of Doom‘s ‘Anything Goes’? … just me then?!), but Spielberg was always acutely aware of referencing too much of his own output – and that of others – and purportedly fought hard to keep the lid on that Pandora’s Box of geek-dom. It is impossible to gauge every movie and cultural citation of Ready Player One. Just be assured it was made by a bunch of folk who love those characters and worlds as much as your childhood did. A great many of the arcade gameplay references are, of course, very American – as are the myriad of computer game characters, avatars and classic cyber brawn of all our childhoods. But the saving grace of the cavalcade of references is the viewer ultimately notices what their childhood wants them to recognise and remember. For such a massively mounted and populated film, it has a strange ability to be very personal. And yes, there is even a quick, flattering and cool Bond reference that makes total sense in the cyber scheme of things.
The detractors knocking the pop cultural riffs played out throughout the film are possibly missing the point. It is not as if Steven Spielberg himself has failed to contribute enough to the DNA of pop and movie culture already. Some might claim there it is a creative shortfall when we see the likes of Chucky (the possible pub-chat keynote of the film), Freddy Krueger, Atari, Krull, He-Man, Castle Greyskull, Buckaroo Banzai, The Dark Crystal, Lord of the Rings, KITT and Ferris Bueller thrown into Ready Player One‘s Sodastream cocktail. Personally, the conveyor belt of references work. And wasn’t it Steven Spielberg who first popped a R2-D2 onto the Ark casing in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and the underside of his mothership in 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind having already kicked off 1979’s 1941 starts with a Jaws spoof? Spielberg adding homage nods to his and his peers work is actually older than the Eighties.
But no matter the era, the very nature and purpose of culture is to bind and create a commonality – a shared experience, a mutual language and communal reference points. Screenwriters Ernest Cline and Zak Penn do not just add a Superman the Movie quote for split-second entertainment. They do so because of the shared, recognisable language of cinema. It’s not artistically tacky or some moment of cultural pillage to reference Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor in the context of this film. It is sort of necessary and how the characters of this film communicate. Cline’s analogue fable is about the communities playing inside The OASIS. It is about people virtually hanging out who haven’t always met each other as they love, mock and share movie clips, culturally-skewed memes and mashed-up quips. Is that not how today’s social media works? When a film like Anchorman now has a different life as a constant source of fun gifs and memes, does that not prove the commonality and usage of the movies as a shared language and social glue?
Ready Player One is not just a stitched-together quilt of Eighties knowingness. It is not just a Panini sticker album of chest-beating in-jokes. Penn and author Cline have shifted some of the beats of the 2012 original novel to ensure cinema guide Wade’s treasure chasing, both literally and figuratively. ‘The Stacks’ are as much about Rear Window and the minutiae of normal lives as seen through passing windows as some commentary on society retreating away from itself. Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998) echoes throughout with recurring cutaways to the effect this game is having on people’s work, social and family lives. A Japanese businessman kicks off when he is ‘killed’ in The OASIS, a cute blonde Spielberg girl throws her cyber toys out the pram and single moms in their threadbare dressing gowns tap into The OASIS like double-shift moms having a daytime TV day off. The stamp of Game of Thrones on the popular culture of today is not missed as the final wintry battle on the Planet Doom feels inadvertently familiar as the hoardes of ever-familiar allies wake from the retro dead to help Parzival’s Jon Snow in a true Battle of the Eighties Bastards. And the very decade which Steven Spielberg rose to cinematic dominance plays its part too. A quarter coin from 1972 is tossed into the story, ‘Staying Alive’ pounds out at the Distracted Globe nightclub, 1974’s Mechagodzilla roars into frame during the last act, Silent Running gets a cameo, Parzival’s 1977 Travolta strut, Seventies Bob Peak movie posters dress the bedroom walls and streets, movie-minded tin lunch boxes are where folk keep the important things, and 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and its anthem ‘Pure Imagination’ is a clear template. Like Stranger Things demonstrates, the Eighties has to be as much about a Seventies hangover too as She-Ra and WarGames.
With characters framed by a diversity of race, gender identity and class, the 2045 context is not stopping the director making the same prescient 2018 political points he loaded into The Post. How the final trailer for the film was called ‘Dreamer’ in the current presidential era of denigrating such terms and people may be no accident. However, one of the unspoken charms of Ready Player One is how it retrieves the future and our use of technology from the dark, suffocating shadows of Black Mirror, Ex-Machina, Blade Runner 2049 and their ilk. This is not a wholly dystopic world. Wade and his pals are no more addicted to The OASIS than the characters and worlds of Stranger Things and Game of Thrones dominate our hashtags and sofa-bingeing right now. This is still a Spielberg movie. The sense of home is maintained as the reality of the real world is the film’s final save point. Spielberg didn’t set out to craft some message about society’s realities. He made a movie stitched together by cinema – including his own canon and that of his colleagues. Halliday and Wade’s bedrooms alone are wilful salutes to the set dressing of the bedrooms in E.T., Close Encounters, Poltergeist, The Goonies, Gremlins and Explorers. The blue collar affectations of The Thing, The Sugarland Express and Alien inform ‘The Stacks’. And how a movie can seal a kiss is straight from Elliott’s The Quiet Man-inspired embrace in E.T. mixed with a bit of Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible.
With a bulk of this film shot on British soil and at Leavesden Studios, production designer Adam Stockhausen (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Bridge of Spies) renders Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter into a striking patchwork underbelly of graffitied archways, dishevelled underpasses, and warehouse refuges. Though how many 2045 Columbus streets feature very British blue car park signs is up for debate. Spielberg’s continued admiration for British acting talent continues too with Mark Rylance’s socially and sexually nervous Halliday, Simon Pegg as his best friend Ogden Morrow, Mancunian Olivia Cooke as the feisty Art3mis, Hannah John-Kamen, and Claire Higgins, Ralph Ineson and Susan Lynch all crop up in Wade’s chaotic life. Ben Mendelsohn’s serviceable villain Sorrento is straight from Minority Report and Tye Sheridan (X-Men : Dark Phoenix) does well enough with a hard role that sees Wade often literally hanging in the back of a truck with his face forever hidden. A romance between his Parzival and Cooke’s Art3mis is a little forced and her virtual sass can wear thin. Yet, there is an undeniable charm to Ready Player One and one that starts with “A Steven Spielberg Film”. Simply smiling through a movie is ever rare these days.
A slight tale when all is told, it is also the director’s most kinetic, buoyant work since 1993’s Jurassic Park. With a traditional orchestral score by Alan Silvestri (Death Becomes Her) alongside the future visions, here is a wholly visceral narrative that is never lost in the falling masonry and battle-play involved. Despite the breathless cavalcade of references, there is a freshness to the iconography of this film – with ‘The Stacks’, a reclining and uneasy Halliday and that suspended Wade already part of the grammar of Spielberg’s timeline.
Ready Player One is not about culture as product or empty homage. It is about culture as a sense of home – that very tenet of Spielberg’s most prized works. A true Saturday morning cartoon of a movie, Ready Player One is a worthy addition to Spielberg’s movie arcade. Now – when does it come out on VHS? My local video store is already taking bookings.
Ready Player One is released in cinemas on March 29th, 2018.
‘Mark, I am impressed how accurately you parsed our intentions, an extremely thoughtful and lovely review.’
Zak Penn (screenwriter, Ready Player One)
Watching Skies – Star Wars, Spielberg and Us by Mark O’Connell is available from all good book stockists now.
With thanks to Warner Bros UK.
For more photos from the London premiere launch of Ready Player One pop over to Watching Skies on Facebook.