Player 2 Has Left the Game
There are some people in the world of cinema whose name becomes synonymous with what they do. You can spot them quite easily. They normally get the word ‘esque’ stuck on the end of their name to tell you another director has tried to respectably rip them off. It’s a sign that their talent has sewn them into the fabric of the cultural landscape. Steven Spielberg is very much one of those people. Although, unlike so many other directors who share that honour with him, he’s transcend the need to be seen as connected to only one genre or style of film. When it comes to Tarantino, Hitchcock, Fellini, Lean or Kubrick, you know roughly where the movie is going to take you. Whereas Spielberg feels more of an iconoclast than the rest of them. Or, at the very least, he appears to have a few extra clubs in his bag.
He can plug into drama, comedy, coming of age or war with surprising success almost every time. Although, for my money, blockbusters are always where he truly excels. From the pace and drive of an Indiana Jones adventure to the spectacle and awe of a trip to Jurassic Park. Or his ever-changing take on science fiction. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. offered us hope with their thrills and special FX. Whereas, as time went on, he offered us darker future prospects with the likes of A.I. and Minority Report or the apocalyptic rollercoaster he built from the bones of Wells’ War of the Worlds.
It’s even more amazing when you consider it all began with a shark and a truck. Jaws showed the world what a blockbuster could be and it didn’t need a comic book character or a trip to a galaxy far, far away to do it. Nope, he just had some tourists, a handful of concerned everyday heroes, a stubborn mayor and a hungry shark. Duel was even simpler. A man gets stalked by a lorry that feels like it drove out of the gates of Hell to find him and we’re along for the ride. We sit in the passenger seat and experience his relentless panic, paranoia and terror, only being allowed to relax once the ride is over.
2018 felt it was going to be a big year for Mr S. He had two very different movies coming out. First came The Post, riding on a cresting wave of award nominations, it was his take on a political reportage thriller. A sage, true story warning for our times. Sadly, it didn’t exactly set the world alight, but that was okay. He was saving the big guns for later.
The early buzz that raced from on set interviews, trailers and early previews made it clear, Ready Player One was going to be something special. Based on the biggest sci fi book I’d never heard of until two years ago, this movie was going to prove Spielberg could still play in the genre he’d pretty much created. Not only play with it, in fact, but set it on a new path.
I remember the first adverts for the movie referring to him as Cinematic Game Changer. Not a bad title. You can keep your BAFTA Fellowship and your academy awards once you’re called that. You don’t need your globes to be golden or to put your hands dipped in the wet cement of the pavements of Hollywood once you’re dubbed a Cinematic Game Changer.
That first trailer did intrigue me. There was no denying Spielberg was going meta. This was a movie that wasn’t so much referencing the movies of our childhood as outright stealing from them.
People went cuckoo over those trailers, taking screenshot after screenshot to show the amount of famous movie icons we were going to see sharing one screen. The call to action was clear. This was going to be Who Framed Roger Rabbit for the 80s geek.
The reactions were hugely positive when it came out on general release across in The States. The word was that Steven Spielberg was truly back on form. I made sure we booked our tickets for a first screening and we headed into our local cinema on the first night of our Easter Holiday. The place was buzzing with anticipation. There was no doubting that this was going to be a fun couple of hours and, for a lot of people, it was exactly that. I wasn’t so sure, myself.
At first, after the lights came back up, I thought I might've seen a good movie. There was no denying it’d been a spectacle. A couple of the set pieces were pretty thrilling. One in particular, which I’d not seen referenced on any trailer or in any review (so I’m going to honour that and not mention too much about it here) was a real surprise. Although there was a sense of in-joke overload after spending over two hours in The Oasis. I’d been fed to bursting with movie reference. By the final battle the Back to the Future DeLorean had gone from a respectable nod to an 80s classic to just a commonplace sight. I’d watched The Iron Giant come back life on to the big screen and hadn’t felt any of the same pain I’d felt the first time he’d suffered in a movie. I’d heard spells from Excalibur. I’d witnessed a character in a 21st century blockbuster referencing Buckaroo Banzai. Only it did nothing for the plot, when you thought about it. If anything, I began to realise, it was all a little flat.
As that night went on, I found my mood souring. Ready Player One hadn’t actually been about anything but the references it’d worked so hard to stack in front of me. Sure there was a plot of sorts, but being a Roald Dahl fan, it turned out I’d read Ready Player One after all. I’d just read the beta test version, where all the VR and pop culture references had been about sweets and chocolate. Beyond that paper thin and borrowed plot, the movie hadn’t given me anything to invest in. There’d been no stakes for me to get behind. There wasn’t anything tactile and involving in its Avatar style, mo-cap characters as they jumped from movie reference to movie reference. It all felt like the grand, opium fuelled hallucinations of the boys from The Big Bang Theory.
Very early on, the movie rushed to make it clear that almost all the danger we were going to see was going to be inside a game. Which meant, for me, the real world stakes were immediately negated. To the point where, when they tried to explain that losing the game could actually drive people to try and kill themselves, they chose to make a joke out of it. Which stopped you ever feeling any of the neglect, envy or depression that was driving people headlong into The Oasis to escape their lives. If this was a dystopia, then tell me why. It certainly didn’t look or feel like one to me.
It was the same with the lead character. He was just playing a game. That’s all. There was no sense of him struggling to get into the game and then earning his place there. No proving himself as a hero and winning his chance to slay the dragon.
At the start of the movie, as our first offering of nostalgia drenched 80s rock made a pitch for the soundtrack, we watched Wade Watts working his way down to a stack of trailers. He looked bored of his world, but he wasn’t about to suffer at the hands of it. Nope, he was just going to play a game for a while, before he climbed back up to his home. It was basically a world based on my old school holidays. Bed, console, bed.
What’s unusual here is that Spielberg will normally invest his characters with a rich, grounded sense of the underdog. He’ll give them a struggle that means you can’t help but side with them. He even managed that with Tintin, which shows he can do it with CGI and mo-cap. For some reason, though, Wade doesn’t get any of that. The Oasis is never set up as escape from anything in particular for him, just a vague and rather shiny escape. We don’t see him going to a school where only the people who can’t afford to play the game are forced to attend and maybe even teach themselves. We don’t see him at a dead-end job where he’s trapped until he can afford to get into The Oasis himself. We don’t even see him struggling to tolerate his family until we’ve already seen him in the game. Which removes them from the events. It makes them less than they should be to him and us.
The real world in Ready Player One just isn’t real enough to keep you caring. It’s a façade. It’s a stopgap between expensive set pieces. You think of the worlds Spielberg has created in other movies and they’re always so relatable, even when they’re in the far flung future. Ready Player One just doesn’t have that gravity in its storytelling. By the end of the movie, we’re told we should pay more attention to reality and you can’t help but think that Steven should’ve taken his own advice. Two characters die in the real world in this movie and, whilst they’re not the nicest characters on offer, there’s no real drama or shock to it. No sense of victory or call for vengeance. Another character gets thrown out of a moving car and they’re just left to roll away. No danger. No worries. No impact. Nothing. They just turned up later on, a scratch on their head and a glare in their eyes.
Then there’s The Oasis. Which I know I should love. How many other movies show us Harley Quinn sharing a drink in the corner of a bar as a throwaway reference? How many other races have you seen where you wish it would slow down just so you could count the famous cars? How many other family blockbusters have a reference to the evil, killer doll Chucky or a chest bursting baby Xenomorph? This should absolutely be my wheelhouse, but it left me cold. It left me feeling like all of my favourite movies had been reduced down to cosplay, punchlines and desktop backgrounds. Unlockable characters for later levels or, cinema gods forbid, the sequel. This feels like a movie designed by marketing executives. ‘Hey, kids, you liked the 80s right? Then you’re going to love this.’
You know how loads of movies and TV shows like to throw in an E.T. reference at some point? They have a moment where the lead character gets on a bike and jumps in front of some representation of the moon with another character riding on their handle bars. Well, I’ve always found that boring. True, it might because I’m not the biggest fan of E.T., but it may also be because it’s so predictable. The build up to it is always stops the plot, gives me a chance to hunker into my seat and roll my eyes at a makeshift version of the Amblin logo. Well, the whole of Ready Player One feels like that to me. It’s all one big, pointless Easter egg. Only, in this case, it’s all so overly cross-pollinated. There’s no chance to focus or appreciate what you’re seeing. Let alone pause for any moment where the characters can explain why this all of means something to them. It’s the movie equivalent of all those people who walk around with Ramones, Clash or Rolling Stones logos on their t-shirts when they don’t own one of their albums.
At one point, a character flies into the final battle on Serenity from Firefly and no one really talks about it. It’s just a distracting taxi. One of the main villains is using an avatar that looks like a crooked version of Superman, but he never uses it as anything more than that. The classic bike from Akira gets trashed in a shiny, expensive heartbeat whilst one of my favourite movies gets turned into a fairground ride and everyone else around me seemed to be loving it.
Spielberg has managed to sweep me up in wonder so many times before. This should’ve been no different but, instead, it felt like Avatar’s needy little cousin. What Spielberg has constructed here is little more than a VR headset test. These characters might as well have communicated in cheat codes or button sequences.
“Up, down, square, triangle, square,” said Wade as he rode his T Rex through the Star Wars cantina.
Or maybe they’re saving that for the sequel as well.