Dir. Steven Spielberg. Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn
A “Zemeckis cube” and a DeLorean, a long chapter of the film devoted to painstakingly recreating The Shining, namedropping the Millennium Falcon, and of course, the somewhat controversial usage of the Iron Giant. If on one snowy night, his lip cut up from a punch and his mind reeling because he can’t account for the money that like, Jeffrey Katzenberg foolishly left lying around, Steven Spielberg looks up and says I WISH I’D NEVER BEEN BORN, he can know what that would be like without needing anything so rococo as divine intervention to light his way. Ready Player One has so many movies in its DNA, including movies from people I don’t think Steven Spielberg has ever been all that close with or acted as mentor to. Yet despite including Zemeckis, Kubrick, Lucas, Bird (Gilliam, Scott, Crowe, Cronenberg, Hughes, …), there is no active mention of “Spielberg.” The closest we get is that Tyrannosaurus rex which eats some cars and, let’s be real, there’s nothing about that dinosaur which demands that we think about Spielberg. He’s created a world in which he was never really there, and what a dark world it is where the pop culture has not been touched by his lit-up finger. This must be at least a little unfair. I can more easily imagine that Spielberg would have shied away from including his own work in a movie which is only a series of pop culture references because there’s something indecent about tooting one’s own horn. Maybe he feared that it would distract from our suspension of disbelief, or maybe he just figured it would look bad and decided he’d skirt the whole thing. All the same there is an ironic little twist in this world where Spielberg never does come to the fore; look at those towers of trailers which have replaced the capital of Ohio, and you can’t help but think Pottersville has supplanted Bedford Falls.
When Peter Benchley sneered at Spielberg by saying that he was destined to become the most famous second unit director in America—which, ironically, has become merely the most famous backhanded compliment in American film instead—I don’t think he ever expected that Spielberg would lose his fastball directing action sequences. Yet I struggle to come up with a better way to explain what happens in a racing sequence early in Ready Player One. The race is so full of redshirts, identical in form and function (grayscale stock cars; crashing), that the actual action gets lost. I struggled a little to keep up with which section of the race, so called, we were in. Monsters burst out of and around the track, the course itself bends but not in any direction we can actually keep up with. The point is clear enough, as this is a race that no one has ever been able to win, and we understand abundantly why that’s the case by the end, where King Kong descends on the roadway and busts it up real good. Yet it’s also been a surprisingly empty action sequence from the man who brought you some incredible number of beautifully choreographed Indiana Jones sequences, the barrel chase from Jaws, the calamitous exploding airplane in Always. I know! Always! It has better, clearer, lovelier action sequences than this movie, which all too often does one of two things. It’ll tumble into confusion, as seems most common when the DeLorean pops up, or it’ll head back to IOI headquarters where their endless army of respawning folks fall over in terminals that glow red when the online avatars meet their pixelated maker. What I hoped for when I heard the word “race” was the thrill of George Lucas’ podracing in Phantom Menace, or the zap of the Wachowskis’ ludicrous tracks in Speed Racer, or John Frankenheimer’s way of creating enormous intensity in the Formula One races of Grand Prix. If a demolition derby is what we’re supposed to get, bené. But this is Steven Spielberg we’re talking about. Why are his demolition derbies less comprehensible and compelling than the one we get in Cars 3?
Spielberg is still capable of rearing back and finding that four-seamer, as when Aech (Lena Waithe) accidentally explores the Overlook Hotel without having any idea what’s coming for her. I think there are some genuinely decent little jump scares in those moments, made more effective because you know the axe isn’t supposed to swing into Room 237 at all; our familiarity with the original text has in fact made us more susceptible to the series of scares he’s cooking up. The problem is that even the stuff with The Shining breaks Tim’s First Law of Making Movies: Never incorporate a movie which is better than the movie you’re making. All it does is make us resent the movie we’re watching for not being as good as the movie you’re including; there is some serious resentment I have that I spent roughly as long watching Ready Player One as I would have spent watching The Shining, a more or less perfect movie.
Let’s not even talk about the idea underpinning Ready Player One, which is that there might be some benefit beyond placing in bar trivia in knowing as much about nerd culture from the late ’70s through the ’80s. This is an idea which I would have guessed is absolutely beyond parody, but I guess y’all Gen Xers never did recover from the existential horror of letting yourself into your own homes after getting off the middle school bus. (The privacy one gets from being a latchkey kid does open up the possibility of some undisturbed wanking, which, go figure, sums up Ready Player One conceptually in just two words.) If we did want to talk about that more, we could say that there are some inherent problems in creating characters who have put their personalities into a microwave to be reheated into something resembling the characters they’re aping. Or we could just look at Wade and Samantha and see if there’s anything charismatic in them, anything that doesn’t feel like The Goonies back for another go-round. The answer is a resounding “lol” at that particular possibility. My favorite part of the movie is when Wade is giving a speech to the rest of the people in the Oasis in which he is trying to solicit assistance to attack Nolan (Mendelsohn) in his fortress. The movie knows that what Wade is actually saying is so unimportant that it actually cuts away from him saying the presumably motivational speech multiple times so we can follow Nolan around more. The speech is boilerplate, a thing that you have to do in your action-adventure movie, and so here it is getting done…but you don’t actually have to listen to it happening, because you’ve heard the speech before. Either this is a hilarious nudge in the ribs at the movie from the movie itself, or it’s an accidental statement of why this movie feels deeply pointless, and, well, you can guess which one is more likely.
There is a not uninteresting movie in here, although for that movie to exist the reason for Ready Player One itself be would have to be entirely different. At one point, Wade’s guardians get blown up via drone strike that was intended for him. His guardians don’t seem to be the world’s most swell people—Wade’s uncle Rick (Ralph Ineson) is a loser, but Alice (Susan Lynch) seems like she’s trying to be a human being often as not—and Wade is much less interested in them than he is in trying to find Easter eggs and keys and whatnot on the Internet. Alice and Rick die for him. They were destitute and basically hopeless, in some measure through Rick’s bad decisions. He spends their savings on gear to make him more formidable in the Oasis, and ends up getting sent back to the first level (in normal people speak) and losing the investment entirely. That scene where he gruffly tells Alice that he’s lost the money they were putting together for a house because he had such big plans for it online has something to it. The society of Ready Player One is indebted to the ’80s, and apparently that’s true because businesses have far too much power and people are really glued to their screens so they can ignore how undignified their lives are. Ready Player One: Ragequit is more than “not uninteresting,” to be honest. There’s a story in there which is far more real than watching Parzival and Art3mis skip the light fandango in a virtual discotheque built by a late gazillionaire who lamented never getting further than a first date with a woman we barely know. (This was also the least interesting part of The Social Network, for what it’s worth.) Alice and Rick are types just like Wade and Samantha (Cooke) are types, but there’s a possibility for real feeling in those two which is just totally absent from the rest of the movie. You can smell the despair on them, can imagine them as the worst version of an ’80s Mike Leigh couple put sixty years into the future. (No one references Meantime in this one; I wonder why that could be,) Yet they are blown up by some drones with rotors lit up with bad guy red, and Wade hardly seems bothered with their deaths before he goes on to the real business of his life and the real business of the film, which is to start up the console and play a little longer.