By Dean Goldberg.
While I’ll admit that Pong was the last video game I had any interest in and more recently got sea sick when a colleague slipped goggles on my head for a virtual world tour, I was still pretty excited when asked to review Steven Spielberg’s new film, Ready Player One. I’d read that the director had conjured up a mix of animation, live action, and CGI for this screen adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel that takes place in dystopian future (2044) where a myriad of virtual realities serve as the only reprieve from an empty and depressing existence. I was eager to see the director’s take on this not too distant future. Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) ranks as one of my favorite films, so I was a Ready-Player to follow the director down this virtual yellow brick road. The screenwriter, Zak Penn (The Avengers, 2012) had teamed with author Cline, and I trusted Spielberg to put his own brand on the narrative but, alas, he hasn’t.
The hero’s role in Real Player One is filled by Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Apocalypse, 2016) who does a competent job as the lonely, misunderstood, underachieving savant who finds himself in a to-the-death competition against an ominous entity/corporation to discover the keys that lead to the Easter Egg – read Golden Fleece – in the virtual universe known as OASIS. Mark Rylance, a recent and wonderful addition to the Spielberg repertory company, whose heart and soul made a glorious transition to fantasy in Spielberg’s BFG (2016), plays OASIS creator James Halliday, the original lonely, misunderstood savant, who invented the universe and, posthumously, is ready to bequeath the whole kit and caboodle to the virtual warrior, that equipped with an extraordinary knowledge of 80s trivia, will be the one to finally solve the puzzle and win the prize: total control of the OASIS.
Sound familiar? The mind boggles. But if one of our (real) world’s greatest directors was (video) game enough to tackle a movie that defies gravity (and gravitas) on every level, so was I. To say I was disappointed in this presentation of (simple) mindedness over matter is an understatement.
Those of us who teach, write, and think about film have always suffered from a crisis of identity, not only within our own pedagogy but often with the whole rai·son d’ê·tre of film studies and criticism. The question as to whether film is a serious art form has always been a touchy subject, along with Spielberg, of course. Though one could argue that he was the first significant director to bridge the gap between mainstream entertainment and serious cinema since Alfred Hitchcock. It’s pretty much an accepted fact that Jaws (1975) began a new generation of blockbuster movies. Jaws was the engine that pulled the train wreck of the American “New Wave” out from a series of indulgent and confusing productions hurriedly distributed by a Hollywood system that had been taken over by coke-addled young producers and financed by businessmen who hadn’t the slightest idea about the movie making process. Yet out of this cauldron of cinematic soup, Spielberg built his canon of work. A canon, by the way, that is among the most impressive and extraordinary in the history of the industry. To that end, his name remains synonymous with the definition of auteur.
I guess my biggest disappointment with Ready Player One was that I couldn’t find the director’s style anywhere in this film. Not the famous dolly zoom, not the push camera truck in close up, none of those great Spielbergian camera angles. All his wonderful cinematic turns were entirely left out of this movie. And while it’s true that the film kept mostly in the animated “virtual” world, the live action scenes lacked those elements that have made his work so specifically his. Without prior knowledge, I would not have guessed that Real Player One was directed by the man whose films have always represented a masterful use of the language of filmmaking. Halfway through in fact, I couldn’t help thinking about those long-ago rumors that Spielberg had taken over the direction of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982). I wondered to myself who took over for him in Ready Player One.
Surely, directors have every right to go “off the reservation” in an attempt to discover new worlds and new ideas. Hitch did it in Rope (1948), Coppola crashed and burned trying to explore the video process on One from the Heart (1981). But Ready Player One doesn’t seem as much a departure from the works of the director as a half-hearted attempt to stay relevant in a world that simply doesn’t belong to him. And though I’m not prepared in this review to argue the pros and cons of VR as an art form, way of life, social phenomenon, or harbinger of the end of the civilized world, I found the whole concept of avatars as a reflection of this gang of post pubescent virtual masturbator’s inner selves, very disturbing.
The unlikely hero (read geek) has always had a special place in literature as well as films, from the Greeks to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the ordinary hero catapulted into an extraordinary world. Yet in Spielberg’s VR world, there is, at least to my mind, complete confusion as to who owns the being in human being. To make matters more disturbing, the Yoda-like wisdom of the all-knowing sage (Halliday) adds to the virtual bumper sticker ideology of the film. Add in the hegemonic ideal that four or five teenagers could end up ruling the world, and you have a perfect storm of a cooled out sort of fascism and animated idiocy. Perhaps in a world where a real estate mogul from Queens is elected president of the United States and adored by a large section of the country, my patience with any sort of virtual reality has warn pretty thin – especially when that virtual reality aspires to some sort of super reality, a kind of cerebral meth induced truth about Life.
The most telling sequence, told in an epilogue like voice over, referred to the new mandate of two days a week being spent in the real world. Perhaps to stop and smell actual roses? The visual under the narration has our hero making out with his equal girlfriend, played by Olivia Cooke, who is stronger and smarter than him, but somehow takes a very retro back seat to the male. Meanwhile, the fact that this whole VR world wasn’t abandoned for a life in the real world after all that destruction took my breath away. What’s the moral here? That there’s no place like home, except if it’s a virtual home that’s way more exciting, more dangerous, more superficial, and completely vacant of complex thought?
While Minority Report mixed reality and imagination as beautifully as T.S Eliot mixed “memory and desire” in The Waste Land, Real Player One is a muddy mix of unformed ideas and an existential resignation of the power of self.
Dean Goldberg is an associate professor of communication arts and film studies at Mount Saint Mary College, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. He spent more than half of his adult life as a film editor, writer and director and has, for the last fifteen years, been a full-time teacher. He teaches both production and film studies. His article “More Than a Touch of Madness” on Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970) appeared in issue 15.3 of Film International.