“Just because she likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soul mate.”
Such is the advice given to a reeling Joseph Gordon Levitt in Marc Webb’s 500 Days of Summer, a film that warns against idealizing a person as something they are not. The same advice should be given to Steven Spielberg whose latest film Ready Player One sees him create a utopian virtual society filled to the brim with various pop culture icons. Dubbed the OASIS, this pop confection is imagination personified but just because it is constructed from the things we love does not mean that it is entitled or deserving of our love.
Spielberg’s best work has always been rooted in a perceived sense of simplicity that has allowed him to helm some of the biggest franchises in history. The operative word there being perceived because as much as he has succeeded in crafting seemingly simple stories (people vs shark/dinosaur, soldiers vs Nazis, alien vs shady government organization) all of his triumphs showcase a level of depth and heart beyond what is seen on the surface. Ready Player One hints at some of these deeper themes but they are never truly commented on except in passing.
Ready Player One is an exercise in unrealized potential
The premise adapted from the Ernest Cline novel of the same name draws parallels to a Willy Wonka style adventure when OASIS creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) dies and leaves behind an elaborate scavenger hunt for three keys. Should one pass all three pop culture inspired gauntlets and obtain all three keys they will be rewarded with control over the virtual world. A power that if placed into the wrong hands can mean disaster to the virtual paradise. Immediately the stakes and lines of delineation are set without much need for much in the way of table setting. It’s the gamers vs the evil corporation, a setup that in theory could present some biting social commentary on corporate propaganda, gaming culture or information privacy that rivals some of Spielberg’s recent “grown-up” features. Unfortunately, this potential (like much of the film) is squandered in favor of a boring by the numbers action adventure.
Instead, he opts for the conservative route stamping his trademark sentimentality throughout. Spielberg, much like his on-screen surrogate Halliday have established legions of fans and followers who idolize their work, their legacies intrinsically tied to this worship. Perhaps he is self-aware that critiquing the foundation of pop culture worship is, in turn, attacking his very legacy. Self-preservation especially when you are reliant on that same nostalgia to drive box office numbers for your next project (the upcoming Indiana Jones sequel) makes sense but it still begs the question of what this film could have been if he were willing to probe some of these social critiques.
The sheer number of these references is staggering as Spielberg squeezes little homages all throughout every frame but these references much like the avatars that inhabit the game are merely empty husks devoid of any personality. Unfortunately, the players controlling the avatars don’t do much to project any sort of personality into their avatars either collectively forming the least appealing protagonists ever in a Spielberg film.
Defined entirely by their knowledge of Halliday and his pop culture obsessions, none of Ready Player One’s characters demonstrate any sort of distinct individuality. Another opportunity for Spielberg to address the dangers of pop culture obsession (of which he merely hints at with no conviction whatsoever) he instead opts to celebrate it as a virtue which would be less of a sin if it didn’t make his lead – the orphan turned hero Wade Watts AKA Parzival (Tye Sheridan) all the blander because of it.
Nothing is his own, he is not the most skilled at the game (which is usually the precedent for winning a video game) nor does he possess any charisma for the audience to latch onto. Even his avatar which grants him the ability to be whatever he wants is a generic humanoid with no distinctive features. His peers, a prototypical pixie manic dream girl named Samantha AKA Art3mis (Olivia Cooke of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and a rough and tumble Orc with a heart of gold AKA Aech don’t fare much better but still either alternative would have been better than Watts. By the end of the film, you are almost left hoping that the evil corporation (lead by a quietly strong Ben Mendelsohn) wins just so these kids can go back to reality to find some personality.
Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe which has been criticized for its relentless homogeneity allows its characters to showcase their unique idiosyncrasies. Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, itself a blending of various video game entities was able to turn its characters one notedness into an opportunity for growth. Even the reboot of Jumanji from this past summer, a film devoted entirely to being a “popcorn flick” had more to say about video game culture than Ready Player One does.
Despite its claims to freedom and open expression Ready Player One often finds itself too restrictive and conservative.
Banking on the idea that love for pop culture relics will correlate to a similar love for the characters interacting with those objects, Ready Player One attempts to shortcut its way into hearts with nostalgia. But more often than not, these nods are just interchangeable skins that have stripped away what makes each of these iconic symbols special. So while there is indeed a thrill in seeing things we previously only daydreamed about like the Delorean from Back To The Future racing the motorcycle from Akira, these thrills quickly dissipate only to be replaced by disappointment as the film fails to grasp the diverse toolset it has to play with.
The strongest set piece in Ready Player One’s arsenal is a tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Here, Spielberg’s respect and love for Kubrick’s film is evident as he successfully transfers a faithful recreation of the Overlook Hotel (right down to the lighting and cinematography) in the virtual OASIS. If only the rest of the film carried as much heart as this sequence, the film would be much better off for it. For as much as Spielberg obviously loves movies, I’m not sure how comfortable he is with video games, in particular, the elements that make each video game he haphazardly references one of a kind.
Conceptually it is an issue of style over substance. No one will question the visual achievement that is Ready Player One, even in the sequences set in the real world the look and feel of the universe is beautifully constructed. The opening pan across the various citizens stacked on top of one another in the slum-like projects of future Columbus Ohio is one of the most inspired of the film establishing a stark contrast between the two worlds. If there is one thing Ready Player One grasps excellently it is the escapist appeal of pop culture. However, In the OASIS where possibilities are infinite not enough of those possibilities are ever tested. Handed a blank canvas with thousands of intellectual properties at his disposal, Spielberg misses his mark opting for quantity over quality, safety over ambition, aesthetic over heart.