Before we’re old enough to comprehend to vast pop culture lexicon and where it’s come from, beyond the valley of Saturday morning cartoons and scattershot images of fictional figures we’re implicitly told are the chosen few that stand out amongst others not deemed as culturally significant, one real person’s name we hear before most, if not all others is Steven Spielberg’s. At least, that’s how it seemed during my formative years. I’d consistently remind myself of the likes of Bogie and Gregory Peck studying VHS sleeves for Casablanca and To Kill a Mockingbird, respectively, but Spielberg always seemed the first name out of my parents’ mouths when talking to me about movies. It possibly helped that my childhood and pre-teen years consisted of repeat viewings of E.T., Jaws, Hook and Jurassic Park, as well.
I couldn’t tell you the exact moment I saw each of them for the first time, though Jaws was likely on a portable DVD player – remember those? – during the then-latest early autumn hurricane, or how many times I’d watched them before choosing anything else. If it weren’t evident enough, all of this is to say that Spielberg, particularly the blockbuster cinema half of his moviemaking magic had a profound effect on my early entertainment consumption and scant understanding of where the medium was progressing from, and he’s had that effect on millions of others. In 2018, 36 years after E.T. in particular, the director seemingly wants Ready Player One to recapture a similar feeling of inspiring adventure, of empowered youth transcending adults and bureaucratic entities comprised of said adults who’ve forgotten their sense of childlike wonder, for a new generation looking for their Goonies-esque cultural touchstone which they can reminisce about through sweetly impenetrable nostalgia – not that Stranger Things hasn’t already covered that ground adequately enough.
Honoring the resonant balance between dystopian danger and optimism found in similar adventure flicks of the ’80s and ’90s, Ready Player One feels like a film ripped from the past and transplanted as a saving grace for those, not just diehard fanboys, seeking an escape from alleged superhero fatigue. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly given the story’s melding futuristic tech with geekdom fixations of yore, it’s narrative is structurally old-fashioned, though intentionally so, trying to carve out its own terrain in the Millennial-driven box office, appealing to any and all viewers looking for affirmation of their particular nostalgia. To push the comparison even further, and to even more obvious territory, through Spielberg’s terms, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) and the rest of the “High Five” are to this story what Elliot and his cohorts are to E.T., and what the Goonies are to, well, you take a guess.
When the narrative spends more time visually and audibly name-dropping particular portions of recognizable properties audience members can feel superficially rewarded for recognizing than developing its protagonists to maximize our emotional investment, however, this sort of harkening back to a bygone era feels less like sincere homage and more like a calculated effort from Warner Bros. and the rest of its associated producers to capitalize on film and television’s recent plunge into nostalgic aesthetic appropriation. It seems to unintentionally embody much of what’s been criticized of Ernest Cline’s source material; an indulgent cavalcade of references masking weak writing. Ironically, and not at all fittingly, there remains in Spielberg’s film an interesting if philosophically contradictory critical glance at the intersection between nostalgia culture, detail-fixated fandom and consumer capitalism, and to a lesser extent focuses on how technological advancement makes escaping reality easier, but also more simultaneously alienating and uniting.
It’s an immediately disappointing realization regarding this awkward gulf between artistic intent and the realities of business that, from this writer’s vantage point, should drag down the viewing experience, and yet it somehow doesn’t – at least not entirely so. Amidst any all elements restricting this film’s striving for pseudo-cult status, there’s still a light amount of sugary and carb-loaded entertainment present enough to satisfy without oversupplying the demand. In fact, the film itself unpredictably seems to thrive on similar contradictions conventional filmmaking wisdom tells us should sound the death knell. Despite an opening hour or so of the film’s runtime landing with the sort of grace you’d expect from an exposition bombshell, the storytelling maintains vibrant enough pacing through most of the duration to encourage further participation from fence-sitting viewers. Though the characters inevitably suffer from poor screenwriting, the performers appear engaged enough to warrant our own investment in them, mild as it may be.
And as threadbare as the film’s intellectual pursuits run the closer we come to the conclusion, there are enough intimations at a comprehensive cultural study within this text and even the occasional set-piece to justify further examination, and thus repeat viewings – in which case, is it possible that Spielberg actually accomplished his objective? Interpretations will of course vary, but aside from citing the underlying motivations behind corporations engaging in nostalgia and nerd spheres and vocabulary, Ready Player One’s ultimate message boils down to little more than the necessity of moderation, whether it be nostalgia or our immersion in virtual communities and friendships in favor of reality. Does that, however, completely forsake intermittent segments that celebrate the hidden value of pop culture as a whole without declaring one sect of it more important than another, as well as its balanced view of human ingenuity and imagination?
Again, the answer resides in some nebulous region between yes and no; yes because it’s hard to accept the film itself as genuinely upholding imagination or progress with its familiar story structure, an overly liberal use of pop culture phenomena for the sake of engaging its audience and even a covertly pessimistic ending made the opposite by perverse cinematic language, but also no because there is a heartfelt disposition to discern from its intentions as a business venture. Perhaps it’s because of Spielberg’s touch as a progenitor of modern blockbuster filmmaking that makes it so there’s sincerity to detect at all, and in nearly anyone else’s hands it just wouldn’t register. Because of his particular legacy as a popular filmmaker, we can more accurately gauge the good in what he’s trying to recreate, even if it falls short of achieving that feeling for some. Not that he minds, though – he’s only gone and succeeded multiple times for over 40 years.