“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
*Cue popular 80s song
With Jurassic Park (1993), Steven Spielberg created the decade’s grandest popcorn adventure, while also covertly making a meta film about how Jurassic Park’s genetically engineered dinosaurs were a metaphor for Spielberg’s CGI innovation, and how this technological breakthrough would change Hollywood forever. In the role of John Hammond, Spielberg found an avatar for himself, a way for him to not only express how movies would change because of this creation, but also how hesitant he was of what the achievement would unleash. It’s likely not a coincidence that Jurassic Park was Spielberg’s last blockbuster that had a “Spielbergian” feel. His big budget films afterwards have a cynical, darker feel to them — more reflective of a concerned parent than a wide-eyed child.
Ready Player One is a bridge between Jurassic Park and everything that has happened to Hollywood since. In the past 20 years we’ve seen CGI become the go-to Hollywood standard. Motion capture has merged actor with effect. In some cases, actors have been brought back to life with CGI (let’s not get into the ethics of THAT). Franchises and brands rule the box office. Curiously, Ready Player One seems to be the exact sort of film that Spielberg was worried about. It could be dismissed as a fanboy’s wet dream (it sometimes is), a Frankensteinish mish mash of pop culture with so much information that it’s devoid of any meaning. Yes, it’s a film that gets bogged down in silly fan service, and the set pieces can sometimes look like Super Smash Bros. — but there’s a craftsmanship here that is vintage Spielberg, and it’s also a story that, whether intentional or not, allows Spielberg to reopen the door he closed in Jurassic Park.
In a Willy Wonka-esque contest, Mark Rylance’s James Halliday, the creator of a virtual world called the Oasis, has hidden Easter eggs that when found will give the winner control of the Oasis. Tye Sheridan’s Wade Watts is the Marty McFly of this adventure through an expansive Internet where pop culture has become identity. Watts is a hero straight out of early 80s cinema — both a boy next door and a rebel. His race to find the easter eggs leads him to teaming up with a crew of Goonies-esque gamers. Watts’ romantic relationship with Olivia Cooke’s Samantha feels a bit too much like a male nerd fantasy but in Spielberg’s hands it skews closer to old school romance and classic teen flicks.
Once set up, the plot mechanics are simply A to B with the young heroes looking for the Easter eggs while Ben Mendelsohn’s Nolan Sorrento, a CEO who wants to take over the Oasis for financial gain, chases after them with his cronies. In a meta-context this plot plays like director’s creations turning into vapid images bought and sold by corporations. Before the film a trailer for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom played and it was too perfectly ironic. Spielberg intentionally removed the book’s references to his own films, but much of the imagery and content owes its existence to Spielberg’s cinema. He’s a filmmaker who cannot escape his own legacy.
On a technical level, Ready Player One is almost too well oiled of a machine, with too simple of a story, to become one that grapples with its content. The screenplay embraces superficial pleasures instead of the ones that Spielberg seems more interested in, or at least the ones that carry weight. Even so, he directs the busy CGI set pieces with a use of spatial clarity and movement that no other filmmaker can touch. It’s a privilege to watch the way Spielberg’s camera glides, the way he turns what would be 3 separate shots for most filmmakers into a single.
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining appears in the film’s most exciting scene, and the only pop culture reference that unlocks an emotional meaning for the film. Kubrick’s own filmography is famously littered with hidden keys, mazes, and clues, and The Shining is the most beguiling of the bunch. The sequence is a fitting, meta-homage to Spielberg’s film here, as he’s made a film about his own films, and how his spectacles and creations often hide his own personal rosebuds. Think of the way Close Encounters deals with a father returning to his childhood. Think of how ET inverts that with a child who has no father, and finds a friend that helps him fill that void. Think of how The Last Crusade plays out like a son having one last adventure with his father. His blockbusters are sweeping personal statements in conversation with each other. In Ready Player One there are traces of all them, both in content and theme.
The film works better as reconciliation with an artist’s work rather than its own story. It’s a film that’s more fun to think about as a Spielberg film than it is to watch. There’s some rousing action in the final third, and the camaraderie among the young cast is charming and infectious. But the idea of nostalgia isn’t grappled with in the script, and the film’s opening is drowned in exposition. While the excessive CGI in the Oasis makes sense, it’s too removed to carry a physical presence like the superior real world scenes.
This film is good enough that it’s disappointing it’s not a better one. But it’s worth analyzing because Spielberg has made a film about himself, and a surprising emotional punch comes in a monologue and look on Rylance’s face towards the end. For a director whose most famous shot is a close up, it fittingly feels like in that moment he’s looking directly at his audience with a warm sense of melancholy. This is Spielberg’s most personal film, or at least most reflective, of the decade. That it’s in a gigantic studio blockbuster is Spielberg’s greatest trick; one that he’s successfully pulled off for decades. His most personal films have always been his grandest adventures, films that would be categorized as “one for them” by most directors.
“Spared no expense” John Hammond says over and over throughout Jurassic Park. At first it’s spoken with pride, but by the end it has descended into a melancholic regret. A similar look is seen again on Halliday’s face over 20 years later in Ready Player One’s ending. Hollywood has spared no expense since Spielberg unleashed his creations into the world. In Ready Player One, Spielberg acknowledges the cost.