1993 was an interesting year in the career of Steven Spielberg. In June of that year, Steven Spielberg released Jurassic Park, and then a few months later in November he released Schindler’s List. In a strange way, these two different movies mark a transition in Spielberg’s career. For the first decade and a half of his career, Spielberg made these incredible, blockbuster smashes, from Jaws to E.T. to the Indiana Jones trilogy. After Schindler’s List, Spielberg’s career had a noticeable shift, with more “serious” movies filling up his plate including Saving Private Ryan, Amistad, War Horse, and Lincoln. This line isn’t a hard and fast moment in Spielberg’s career. The Color Purple came out in the 1980s and Spielberg would continue to put out the occasional blockbuster crowd pleaser into the 2000s. (Minority Report and War of the Worlds came out in 2002 and 2005 respectively.) But there is a noticeable shift in Spielberg’s filmography between the 1980s and today. It’s an interesting thing to consider going into Ready Player One a loving, feature length tribute to the pop culture of the 1980s knowing that it’s being directed by one of the people responsible for creating that pop culture in the first place.
For the few that don’t know, Ready Player One was a book released in 2011 by author Ernest Cline that told the story of a future obsessed with the pop culture of the 1980s. The story centers around a virtual reality game/simulator called The Oasis that operates like “Second Life” on steroids. And because the creator of The Oasis lived and breathed 1980s pop culture, a challenged was devised that centered around knowledge of things like Star Wars, Atari games, Back to the Future, Rush music and anything else from the pop culture of the era, with the winner being awarded control of the entire game. The winner would get the literal keys to the kingdom as the game was set up for the players to need to find three specific keys and three specific gates.
Ready Player One the movie takes this same basic concept (an easter egg hunt with three checkpoints) but makes some major changes to the plot. This is not a complaint or a shortcoming of the movie in any way. If anything the changes are to better adapt the story to the visual medium of film. Puzzles that involve extended explanations about why technical limitations caused Pac-Man games to operate a certain way are swapped out for fast paced car races. The lack of the first person narrative from the book also means that a lot of the heavy lifting can be split up between several of the main characters causing the core group of “gunters” (easter egg hunters looking for the keys) to feel a lot more balanced out. The movie also does a pretty incredible job of bringing to life a movie that is heavily populated by what is essentially video game characters. Over half of the movie takes place within The Oasis meaning that the characters we follow are the CGI avatars of the main characters. We pretty easily get to the point where it feels just as natural to see the CGI versions of the characters as it is to see their live action counterparts.
Of course in a movie about rewarding obscure knowledge and tiny references would be complete without a dozen reference of its own. Ready Player One is the kind of movie that’s going to get bought on DVD just so people can pause and go through it, picking out every nerdy reverence that walks across the background of the movie. Plenty of the references are obvious, with the characters often mentioning this property where that thing came from. But for those who want to dig deep into the movie, there’s plenty to find. Characters from popular video games appear for only a few frames in a giant crowd. Movie theaters in The Oasis have movie posters for fictional movies starring fictional actors that are all sly references to earlier items of pop culture. Ready Player One clearly expected that it would be take apart frame by frame at some point and it makes sure that there’s something to find when that happens.
Ready Player One (both the book and the movie) are at their heart about the love of a certain property. Spielberg as a director probably doesn’t have the same connection to properties from the 1980s that most of the movie’s audience does. (Thanks in no small part to the fact that he was busy creating half of those properties during the 1980s.) But that doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t aware of the feeling that can be evoked by an obsession with this or that certain piece of pop culture. It ventures into spoiler territory a bit, but one of the puzzles centers around a specific movie and director that Spielberg has made no secret about admiring for a long time. Ready Player One treats this nostalgia thrill the same way it treats King Kong showing up or someone dressing up as Buckaroo Banzai. Nostalgia can get a bad rap sometimes. People get accused of living in the past, or refusing to grow up and focus on “adult things.” But when handled correctly, nostalgia can be an amazing thing. Seeing a certain character or hearing a certain musical cue can transport you instantly to another time and another place, which really is was movies are always trying to do. Ready Player One’s currency as a film is it’s ability to trigger those nostalgic feelings. It handles this masterfully, and that nostalgic feeling of excitement and joy is fueled throughout the entire movie.
Tags: Ernest Cline, film, movie, Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg