Steven Spielberg is going to die. Hopefully not today or tomorrow or anytime soon, but at some point in the near-ish future — after more than five decades of projecting his soul directly onto movie screens — the bearded architect who built so much of the modern world’s collective imagination will fade into its collective memory. Considering that the increasingly prolific filmmaker has released two major studio features in just the last four months, it might seem a bit premature to speculate about Spielberg’s demise (or even his retirement), but the guy is 71 years old, and not even the gods can live forever.
More to the point, Spielberg has clearly started to think about this himself, the shadow of his own mortality creeping into his body of work. Case in point: “Ready Player One.”
While Spielberg’s sexagenarian years found him continuing to zero in on the themes that have always defined his oeuvre (particularly the value of a single human life, which he’s been searching for and celebrating with so much of his post-“Schindler’s List” filmography), recent efforts like “The Post,” “Lincoln,” and even “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” have been uncharacteristically preoccupied with the legacies that icons leave behind.
Spielberg spent the latter half of his ’60s transfixed by the figurative and literal giants of their time, men (and a Meryl Streep) who stood astride a world that had been made in their image and endeavored to leave it a better place. For a director who’s never been shy about his autobiographical streak, this period of Spielberg’s career has almost felt like an act of self-portraiture. He may not have freed the slaves or risked his reputation to defend the First Amendment, but he implicitly understands what it is to know that you’re making history. Few storytellers have ever become so monolithic while they were still alive, and even fewer have been able to watch their legacies take shape before their eyes.
Judging by “Ready Player One,” Spielberg isn’t thrilled about what he’s seeing. As disjointed and (dazzlingly) inert as anything its director has ever made, “Ready Player One” is a lot of different things — many of them contradictory, and the majority of them dull — but most of all it’s an Ozymandian spectacle by an artist who’s reflecting on his works and despairing over what they’ve wrought. It’s a corporate blockbuster about the corporatization of blockbusters, directed by the man who invented blockbusters; more than that, it’s an inherently derivative studio film about the crisis of originality in today’s studio filmmaking, and a sexless orgy of intellectual property that tries, in its too gentle way, to liberate fans from the franchises and iconography they love a little too much for their own good.
With “Ready Player One,” Spielberg is looking at the mainstream movie culture he helped to create, and desperately trying to fix things before it’s too late. Before he’s gone.
Transforming Ernie Cline’s masturbatory geek novel into a caricature of the modern event movie, Spielberg offers a grim vision of a future where the culture is eating itself just to stay alive. While genuinely celebrating the power of pop iconography, his “Ready Player One” also recognizes the sadness and stagnation of a time when branding has become more important than creativity, and easter eggs are the only form of personal storytelling that we have left.
Although it differs from Cline’s book in a number of striking ways, Spielberg’s version of “Ready Player One” keeps the spine of the story intact. It’s 2045, everything is depressing as hell, and most of the populace spends as much time as it can ignoring that fact by plugging into a virtual reality world called the OASIS. This digital paradise was created by a guy named James Halliday (Mark Rylance via Garth Algar), and — like any god-like creator — he fashioned the OASIS in his image. In this case, that means the entire kingdom is defined by (and limited to) the late 20th century iconography that Halliday fixated on during his formative years.
For Cline, that meant everything from John Hughes to “Howard the Duck,” and “Dungeons and Dragons.” For Spielberg, Halliday’s obsessions are fewer and more particular, with a new focus on the filmic stuff. You can still catch the occasional “Overwatch” or “Mortal Kombat” reference (and the big first setpiece is modeled after a “Mario Kart”-style derby), but Spielberg saves most of the money shots for movie callbacks. King Kong has a major cameo, the Chestburster from “Alien” shows up at one point, protagonist Wade Watts uses something called the “Zemeckis Cube,” and so on.
The OASIS is nothing less than a universe forged out of fan service, and our heroes’ fluent understanding of Halliday’s various fandoms is their best hope for inheriting the virtual world now that its God is dead, and his powers are waiting to be reclaimed. Posthumously ceding control of his creation to someone new, Halliday left behind a treasure map to the center of the OASIS, impossible to follow for anyone lacking a savant-like knowledge of “The Shining.” Wade, of course, knows exactly what went down in room 237.
It makes perfect sense that Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece is the backdrop for the best setpiece in “Ready Player One,” because everyone who escapes into the OASIS effectively finds themselves trapped at the Overlook Hotel, stuck in the past like it’s where they’ve always been and still belong. In this supposedly limitless virtual world, Halliday’s fandom has morphed into a strict and oppressive mythology — there is no creation in the OASIS, only recognition. No love, only obsession. It’s as if the entire universe has been subsumed into the post-credits stinger from the end of a Marvel movie; spectacle used to be about creating something new, but now everyone is just holding their breath for a glimpse of something they’ve seen before. In that sense, “Ready Player One” is a painfully lucid extrapolation of our current blockbuster culture.
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