Mr. Spielberg’s Easter Egg Hunt
Movie Review – Ready Player One
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, and Lena Waithe
If a filmmaker’s influence is determined by the number of his or her imitators, there’s no denying Steven Spielberg’s place as one of the most influential directors in film history. His early successes helped usher out the era of realistic independent dramas that ruled the early 70s, reshaping the industry into the blockbuster-based, mass entertainment machine it is today. But if influence is determined by artistic merit, by the depth and power of one’s vision, and the impact of that vision on other serious artists, the legacy of history’s most famous and successful movie director is more complicated.
Spielberg’s early classics, Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), established him as a directorial superstar, a cinematic “wunderkind” with a toybox full of rave reviews and record box office. These films were tightly constructed entertainments that, unlike so many of the cheap imitations they inspired, were smart and cheeky, exploding with kinetic energy, yet instilled with genuine human warmth. Touching on themes of childhood and government authority, they suggested a budding auteur at work. But the years that followed saw a mixed bag from the director as the bloat of unfathomable success took its toll on the quality of his films: From the mega-successful, but lazily scripted ET: The Extraterrestrial (1982) and the ridiculously overwrought terrors of Jurassic Park, to two vastly inferior Raiders sequels, assorted shlock (Always, 1989 and Hook, 1991) and two fascinating, if failed, attempts at drama, The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987). By 1993, he had created an unprecedented string of massive hits, but it was his Oscar-season release later that year that changed the director’s game. Schindler’s List was an undeniable classic, a passionate and powerful vision of the Holocaust filmed by a master filmmaker at the peak of his form. Had Spielberg finally grown up? Was he the great auteur after all? Or was he just a gifted storyteller, a director with no real personal vision but able to render a variety of stories entertaining through sheer skill, craftsmanship and creative wit?
In truth, he’s always been a bit of both. The real question isn’t whether he has his own personal vision. Clearly he does. The question is whether or not that vision is particularly powerful or interesting. The answer to that question is: sometimes. The years since Schindler’s List have seen the director concentrating on mostly-solid, adult historical dramas including the devastating and underrated Amistad (1997), the overrated yawn-fest, Saving Private Ryan (1998), the highly acclaimed Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2012), and last year’s Pentagon Papers drama, The Post.
In between the dramas, there’ve been intriguing sci-fi near-classics like A.I Artificial Intelligence (2001), the War of the Worlds (2005) and the spellbinding Minority Report (2002). There’ve been breezy adult dramedies like Catch Me if You Can (2002) and The Terminal (2004), soulless commercial product like The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) and the unrelentingly stupid Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and 2016’s creepy fantasy misfire The BFG (Big Friendly Giant), which might be more appropriately titled The BFM (Bad Freaking Movie).
The generally high quality of Spielberg’s historical works has elevated him to a kind of “assumed genius” status, much like that of actress Meryl Streep, with a reputation for consistent, if unexciting, excellence that usually results in annual Oscar nominations. But Spielberg’s forays into adult storytelling, while often first-rate, have never completely dimmed his need for the youth-oriented commercial successes that drove his early career. (The fact that Jurassic Park was released the same year as Schindler’s List functions as a metaphor for his entire body of work) No matter how old he gets, the little boy inside him refuses to die. And that refusal, frankly, is what excludes Spielberg from the top tier of history’s greatest filmmakers.
Case in point: Ready Player One, the director’s new CGI action/adventure extravaganza. An attempt to return to the slick, but whimsical, vibe of the filmmaker’s early work, it has that flip, wink-at-the-audience sensibility that made Spielberg’s earlier films seem so fresh 30 years ago. If it had been released at the same time as those movies, it might have joined them as classics, but by now, its subject matter, virtual reality, has been done to death, and Spielberg’s boyish mentality seems out-of-sync with the times. It feels like what it is: the work of a man in his 70’s trying to rediscover the glory of his youth. It plays like an empty Spielberg imitation rather than the real thing, an homage to his youth that seems dated more than nostalgic. And while as technically proficient as anything he’s ever done, the adventure is dulled by its utter predictability.
Based on the 2011 novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One is set in 2044, in yet another dystopian movie-future wherein climate change and the depletion of fossil fuels have created a world of dreary poverty. (Real-life climate change has apparently eliminated all other possibilities for Earth’s future in today’s sci-fi movies and TV shows). To escape, the people indulge in an elaborate virtual reality fantasy world called OASIS, designed by the reclusive James Halliday (the brilliantly versatile Mark Rylance), a Steve Job-like computer genius who looks like Back to the Future’s Doc after the drugs have worn off. Halliday has filled his virtual world with obsessive details and endless references to cultural icons, mostly from the 1980s, because, per sci-fi rules and regulations, all future generations must be obsessed with 20th and 21st century popular American culture over their own or any that have occurred in the years since. (See Star Trek). When the nerdy Halliday dies, his avatar announces to the users of OASIS and thus, the world, that he’s hidden three virtual “keys” in the program and that whoever finds them will receive a special in-game Easter egg (the video gamer’s nickname for virtual items, references or screens, hidden in a game, but outside normal game play), giving them sole rites to, and ownership of, the OASIS.
Engaging in this Wonka-esqe contest are four of the game’s most adept players, some of them friends in the cyber world, but all strangers in the “outside” world of reality. There’s, Wade (Tye Sheridan), our nerdy Spielbergian teenage everyman, who, in the OASIS becomes the ultra-cool digital stud, Parzival; Aech (Lena Waithe), Parzival’s best friend in the OASIS, who’s Avatar resembles the cyborg version of a WWE fighter; Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a feisty female avatar with a fierce gamer’s reputation, and two others. True to the clichés Spielberg himself helped popularize, the four all turn out to be teenagers and children. Their attempts are challenged by the usual nebulous authoritative threat that provides half-assed conflict for so many of these kinds of films, including Spielberg’s own ET. Fearing that a single private player owning the game would waste a powerful commercial opportunity, an evil corporation, led by a typically whiny movie-boss (Ben Mendelsohn), hires, even steals hundreds of players to find the three keys and win the big egg for the company – by any means necessary. That, of course, means eliminating the real-world players whose avatars threaten the company’s interests. In response, the five hotshots team up in-game to help Parzival and prevent the corporation from controlling the OASIS. You can see where all of this is going from the beginning. Cline’s book and his script with Zak Penn, rarely strays from formulaic teen adventure movie devices.
Like the myriad of movies Spielberg’s success inspired, Ready Player One is all flash and little spark. The extravagant trappings of Halliday’s fantasy world keep the CGI crew busy and there are some wonderful set pieces. But the avatar characters all have that creepy half real-half cartoon look from video games and computer animation. It’s hard to be impressed by the kind of imagery you see every day in video games and cartoons, often with more excitement and dramatic impact. True, the film pops with color and visually realized impossibilities, but without the benefit of interesting characters or a fresh story, it overwhelms, not with excitement, but with a numbing tedium.
The film’s real appeal lies not in the fictitious Easter egg hunt at the film’s core, but in the one Spielberg provides his audience. The movie is itself one big Easter egg hunt. It’s pop culture references are crammed-in like the Marx Brother’s in their stateroom. (In a clever bit of marketing gimmickry, the film was released Easter weekend). As in a real egg hunt, many of the “hidden eggs” are in plain view – There are obvious references to Kubrick’s The Shining (an entire sequence, in fact), The Iron Giant, Back to the Future, and the films of John Hughes, as well as appearances by Freddy Krueger and everyone’s favorite psychopathic doll, Chucky. For the pop-culturally astute, there are no doubt many, many more, enough to keep socially inept nerds occupied on the internet for years to come. But a nostalgic game of virtual “Where’s Waldo” is not enough to sustain a two-hour movie.
Spielberg’s formidable craftsmanship and storytelling abilities are not in question and he’s clearly limited by his script, but the warm Spielberg heart has melted away into something sticky and messily maudlin, the youthful appeal that fueled his best entertainments now stale and outdated. He would have done better to hire a younger director to helm this film, someone who could have transformed this uninspired rehash into something more contemporary, relevant, and surprising, someone like Black Panther’s Ryan Coogler or Blade Runner 2049’s Denis Villeneuve.
Think of Ready Player One not just as a glorified virtual Easter egg hunt, but as a single Easter egg, a big, expensive Fabergé egg, impeccably crafted and inlayed with elaborate and impressive colors. But the prize inside is missing. Lacking warmth, originality and genuinely engaging human content, this egg is hollow.