People loved to clown on the posters and trailers for Ready Player One. It’s not hard to see why. The way the film was sold made it look like it was Nostalgia: The Movie, and the way that nostalgia has been employed in just about every facet of pop culture as a means for quick and easy emotional manipulation adds to an already rampant cynicism. There was one reason that I wasn’t able to join in the widespread skepticism about Ready Player One and smorgasbord of nostalgia – Steven Spielberg. One of the greatest filmmakers to ever live saw something in Ernest Cline’s novel that took it to the front of the line to the many projects that Spielberg has in development. Indiana Jones 5? It can wait. That West Side Story Remake? Maybe Next. Robopocalypse? That ain’t happening, Buster. Ready Player One turned out to be such a fascinating choice for Spielberg because he’s basically making a movie that is a celebration of the pop culture in which his work left an indelible mark. Here is a movie that is as much about the self-reflection of its director as it is about the characters adrift in the pop culture-soaked world of the Oasis.
That’s what the film is about – The Oasis, the virtual wonder world created by Halliday (Mark Rylance). In the confines of The Oasis, you can be whoever you wanted to be. You wanna be Batman? Bam! you’re Batman. Wanna dress like Buckaroo Bonzai? Bam! You’re dressed just like Peter Weller in the film. When Halliday died, he left behind a contest for the denizens of The Oasis, which is most of the waking world. Find his three hidden keys and gain control of The Oasis and all of its wonders. The nefarious and industrious businessman Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) has hired an army to unlock the clues Halliday left behind to no avail. Meanwhile, Gunters (a portmanteau of egg hunters) search to unravel the mystery left behind. Wade (Ty Sheridan), who goes by the name Parzival, tries along with his close friend Aech (Lena Waithe) to unlock the clues. And soon a mysterious young woman Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) joins their side in the hopes of finding the three keys before Sorrento does as he aims to remake The Oasis into a corporate raiders pleasure palace of advertising and other streams of revenue.
Thematically, what’s most captivating about Ready Player One is Spielberg’s fascination in using the Oasis as this intersection between art and commerce, something the master director knows all to well about considering his 40-plus years in Hollywood. Even as the Oasis is the destination for everyone in the real world, like movies once were, people are only bound by the limits of their imagination – which, in this particular case, are aspects of pop culture’s past, much like the multiplexes today that feature an array of reboots, sequels, and remakes. There’s something thrilling and sad about the idea of world where you can be anything. The only limits upon you are that of your imagination. And yet, the most common choice is recycled from the past.
Ready Player One takes place in two extremely different realms – one being the aforementioned virtual playground of the Oasis and the other being the rundown reality 2045 Columbus, Ohio. What perhaps is most surprising about the dual duty that Spielberg has to convey is that he seems much more at ease in the virtual scenes. Speilberg has always been a sensationalist and a sentimentalist in equal measure, but the balance is off in Ready Player One as the film is overflowing with sensational images in high-energy sequences but lacking in much of an emotional core that the director is so well known for. That’s really not all on the director as the source material by Cline and adapted by Cline and co-writer Zak Penn has to explain a dense mythology behind the Oasis as well as the contest that drives the plot forward. With so much going on at such a high rate of speed, it’s understandable that fostering a strong emotional connection over a few scenes is practically impossible.
While I find Ready Player One to be a minor work from a master filmmaker, it does feature one all-time great sequence. Steven Spielberg places Parzival and his team of Gunters right into the heart of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It’s a loving homage from Spielberg to his departed friend and fellow master filmmaker and really allows Spielberg to inject the film with his incredibly playful side. Spielberg has said that it was during The Shining that he first got to know Kubrick and recreating the sets and some scenes from the horror classic was a way to memorialize his late friend. The scene is also a masterful piece of filmmaking, playing with the audience’s knowledge of the film and setting some unwitting characters lose in the Overlook Hotel. It all culminates in a great payoff of the villainous I0I henchmen set loose in the haunted hotel and freaking out to the array of horrors unleashed upon them. This really is a sequence that is worth revisiting again and again.
The Blu-ray for Ready Player One has all the top-tier color and sound that one expects from a blockbuster Blu-ray release. The main special features on the disc, however, are a number of featurettes about the film. The development, the production, the post-production are all examined in depth through these featurettes. Practically everyone involved in the film are interviewed in the various featurettes, but they mainly focus on the input of author Ernest Cline and director Steven Spielberg. You get a real sense of just how at ease Spielberg is in developing and directing a movie on this scale – he’s just so cool in crafting a ginormous blockbuster. With Ernest Cline, you really get the sense that this guy is just big boy who got lucky, utilizing his encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture to craft his beloved novel.
What’s really incredible about Ready Player One is that comes just on the heels of The Post, Spielberg’s Washington Post drama that was nominated for Best Picture. There was only three months between the releases of these drastically different movie and they each serve as a testament to the incredible talents of Steven Spielberg and his unique ability to somehow serve as America’s chief moralist and sensationalist. Few could pull off the balance of Ready Player One and while the film might be a minor work from Steven Spielberg, it simply proves that a minor work from a master is better than most of the blockbuster fare that lands in the multiplexes.