Ready Player One

rpoI lasted about two pages into Ernest Cline’s geek-friendly novel Ready Player One. The book’s voice was just too obnoxiously steeped in trivia, with nothing really to say about the pop-culture landmarks it referenced and/or used. I remember thinking “There are so many good or great books yet to read, and I’m going to spend my dwindling sentient time on this?,” and back to the library it went. The movie version, directed by Steven Spielberg, promised to be the same only flashier and louder, yet Spielberg has performed an act of alchemy similar to the upgrade he administered to Peter Benchley’s Jaws. The voice is still there, but here it just serves to help Spielberg move the story along. As with the Jaws novel, Spielberg keeps what works and circular-files what doesn’t.

The result is a juicy wad of bubblegum entertainment, visually antic and immersive without feeling assaultive, fast-paced without feeling rushed. If Spielberg is using the pace so as to deny us time to think about the flaws, he certainly does it successfully. The many pop references from the ‘80s (and some from later, like the Iron Giant) are merely part of the background fabric; you can conceivably not be familiar with any of the cameos, callbacks and in-jokes at all and still follow the basic throughline, which is that young protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) seeks to win a contest that can buy him out of his poverty and prove he’s somebody. Reading that description, you wouldn’t know that the story is set in 2045 or that much of the action takes place in a virtual-reality game world.

Ernest Cline might be high on the underarm fumes of his childhood, but he lucked into one of the basic satisfying narratives, and Spielberg zeroes in on it. Of course, Spielberg is part of the pop culture that Ready Player One and most of its characters lionize. His perhaps unavoidable acknowledgments of this fact are limited to eyeblink images. Wade, aka Parzival in the game world OASIS, must find three keys relevant to the sad past of the late game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the cocreator of OASIS and author of the contest. Rylance files yet another ace performance as a man who speaks haltingly and has complex emotions and feelings of guilt and waste. Some have read Spielberg’s friend George Lucas into Halliday. I don’t disagree.

Most of what we’re looking at in Ready Player One is computer-generated animation mapped onto greenscreened bare sets, but Spielberg manages to suggest it all exists physically and gives it heft, the sound of weight. Editor Michael Kahn (assisted, as on Spielberg’s The Post, by Sarah Broshar) gets the constantly moving images and compositions to click together into action sequences with momentum and even poetry; cinematographer Janusz Kaminski drops his usual desaturated muck and helps the movie look like one of the sleeker examples of the ‘80s blockbusters it wants to be. I’m a sap, but Ready Player One won me over right out of the gate — Van Halen’s “Jump” ushered me back to the summer of 1984, to an age (thirteen passing into fourteen) at which I would most have appreciated the movie. (’84 was also the summer of Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.) The soundtrack is a mix of I-love-the-’80s Spotify playlist and Alan Silvestri’s sweeping score — Silvestri was around back then and knows what an ’80s fantasy should sound like.

Can nostalgia be trusted? It’s as valid an emotional response as any other, and you’re free to take or leave it. Steven Spielberg is still probably the most powerful director in Hollywood, but he’s lost a step or two — he almost couldn’t get Lincoln made. So Ready Player One is partly a trip back to the era where Spielberg was truly master of the universe. Back then, not many people questioned why the hero should be a white male and not a female (Olivia Cooke as Wade’s teammate and love interest Art3mis) or a black lesbian (Lena Waithe as Wade’s best friend Aich) or Asian (Daito and Sho). That aspect of the narrative makes the movie feel retro in annoying ways, but that’s also the cost of watching actual ‘80s movies.

Aich, Daito and Sho almost seem like Spielberg’s stab at atoning for The Color Purple (a movie he would not get to make today, and rightly so¹) and Short Round. Look at the movie long enough and close enough and you might start to imagine it’s as much about apology as celebration. The director who shot Jaws in the ocean because a studio tank would be too fake now makes movies almost entirely on a digital canvas like every other blockbuster director, and he’s partly responsible for why we’ve wound up in a place where our eyes no longer believe reality in movies. Tom Cruise risks his neck doing stunts, and we shrug now because it can just as easily be faked with CG. It’s really him, it’s not really him — who cares? This movie’s message, “Reality is real” (to be fair, a Cline-ism), comes to seem less a bromide than a plea.

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¹But in 1985 it could hardly have been made by a Cheryl Dunye or even an Ava DuVernay, so Spielberg at the height of his powers got the thing made, to the joy of some and the dismay of others, and he didn’t do all that bad of a job of it, considering he was not many readers’ first or hundredth choice to adapt it. But in 2018 there’d be no excuse not to give a new film based on the Alice Walker novel to a gay woman of color to direct.

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