REVIEW: ‘Ready Player One,’ sim city
Reality is an ill fit for Steven Spielberg. The man is an adolescent boy at heart, perfectly suited to Ready Player One’s future where virtual reality has triumphed over the real thing. During the breathlessly expository opening, as teenage hero Wade Watts narrates a tour of an online simulation called the Oasis, one senses the hyperactive glee of a kid showing off his favorite toy. You can drive on a racetrack over here! There’s an awesome shootout over here. It’s so cool. (Blink and you’ll miss the porn. This is a distinctly Spielberg-ian Internet.)
At his best, Spielberg is an instinctively economical craftsman; small gestures—like War of the World’s runaway train or Jurassic Park’s rippling water—imply enormous off-screen movement. But he’s lost in Ready Player One‘s sandbox. Given the opportunity to conjure anything at whim, his brand of spectacle comes unglued. More comfortable with the Boomer iconography of his own childhood, he shows little affection for the material’s geyser of Gen X pop, which dispenses its rewards on a spectrum. At the lowest tier, the movie explains the reference: Wade’s surname is Watts because it “sounds like a superhero’s name like Peter Parker or Bruce Banner.” At the highest, you just have to know: a Rubik’s Cube is called a “Zemeckis Cube” because it turns back time while a cue from Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future plays on the soundtrack. Either way, the reward is recognition, although the kid I heard gasp at the appearance of the Iron Giant seemed to get more out of it than I did when Wade referred to one clue as the “Rosebud at the center of this story.”
But when Spielberg’s fixations and the movie’s intersect, as in a centerpiece trip through The Shining, the whole thing comes to life. The recreation is eerily exacting—a hyper-fanatic’s monument unbound. It’s impeccable down to the way blood spills out of the elevator. Most interestingly, though, there’s the sense of something new. These aren’t the spare parts Spielberg once refashioned into pastiche objects like Raiders of the Lost Ark, but a reconfiguration. Less cover version than sample, it’s like a pop-culture splice that retains both directors’ DNA. In transporting his characters into the original, Spielberg dispenses with the usual rules of perspective, instead matching the original’s iconographic framing—these kids aren’t in the Overlook so much as they’re in Kubrick’s presentation of it. (That something feels off about the way they’re wandering through the frame is part of the trick.) At a crucial moment, Spielberg cuts to a low angle far more expressive than Kubrick’s precise dispassion. When a tennis ball bounces into the frame and settles at their feet, we’re at once reminded of Jack (Torrance and Nicholson), E.T., and Spielberg’s uncanny command of space.
Nothing else comes remotely close to lighting Spielberg’s imagination, which wanes as the movie’s quotative tic grows more frantic. Running through all this pop worship is a confusing, often hypocritical interrogation of capitalistic excess and inauthenticity. “People need to spend more time in the real world,” the movie concludes. That’d be offensive if it weren’t so banal. From a confirmed fantasist like Steven Spielberg, it’s borderline infantile.
Ready Player One. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline. Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, and Ben Mendelsohn. Opens in Kansas City March 30, 2018.