One of the greatest moments in Steven Spielberg’s filmography appears late in his 2001 work A.I. Artificial Intelligence, in which the robot child David, a broken-down simulacrum of an ideal son, comes face to face with the talisman that had given him hope of becoming a real boy. The mythical blue fairy he’d so desperately wished for, derived from Disney’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, turns out to be little more than a chintzy statue, wasting away lifelessly at the bottom of a dark ocean. It’s an incredibly moving scene, at once reckoning with childhood and the dreams we have manufactured for us, and it finds a filmmaker forging into middle age with a thrilling sense of exploration and uncertainty. By contrast, the 2018 Spielberg appears to have succumbed to the cultural amnesia of the present; an older man with a scrambled sense of his past, stuck in a regressive nostalgia loop that yearns, like some indiscriminate Philip K. Dick algorithm, to remember pop culture for its audience wholesale.
Promoting the sci-fi gamer adventure Ready Player One, Spielberg has cast a rose-tinted gaze back on the 1980s, framing it as a time of relative innocence – the threat of nuclear annihilation, Reaganomics, and new conservatism be damned. His new film, adapted from the bestselling 2011 novel by self-proclaimed “full-time geek” Ernest Cline, hums with Spielberg’s unmatched formal elasticity. But it’s also a shrill, soulless piece, lacking the sense of wonder – or even an interrogation of such – essential to its director’s best work, while willfully indulging the historical disconnect that results when culture is reconstituted without context. In an era where collective cultural memory seems stalled in the recent past, could it be that Spielberg – once Hollywood’s premier recycler of affecting childhood junk – has finally fallen prey to the future he helped engineer?
Set to the Pavlovian strains of Van Halen’s “Jump”, the film’s effortless, digitally jazzed opening shot locates its teenage hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, a dead ringer for the young, pre-bearded Spielberg), living in the Stacks, an overcrowded, piled-skyscraper-high trailer park in the Columbus, Ohio, of 2045. In this vaguely dystopian, resource-depleted near future, bummed out residents escape by logging in to an all-pervasive virtual reality world known as the OASIS, where their avatars can act out their wildest fantasies – or, at least, the fantasies pre-programmed into it by its emotionally arrested architects. If this sounds depressingly analogous to the contemporary moment, and the chum-shovelling content factory that is Hollywood and television, you’re already one step ahead of a critique that the film never quite indulges.
The OASIS is the brainchild of James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a billionaire games designer and supernerd gen Xer who passed away and left a series of keys embedded in his creation, with the stipulation that whoever finds them will inherit the system and its untold riches. (Just as grooming mini-me’s is a favourite pursuit of powerful Hollywood moguls.) The promise of this cyber Golden Ticket has sparked a frantic search (cue Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, yet again) within OASIS, as players, or “Gunters”, attempt to unlock the system’s Easter eggs and thus its prize. Leading the quest is Wade’s avatar Parzival – an anime-like character in platinum blonde fringe and sleeveless denim – and his online cohort, including Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki), and Sho (Philip Zhao), and his cyber-crush, the limber, shapeshifting Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). Together they’re racing against a dastardly corporation run by the grimly named Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, on call for franchise menace) and his cynical loyalty program, through which unpaid players are exploited in the pursuit of profit.
The catch, and the film’s marketing hook, is that Halliday was cripplingly obsessed with the pop totems of his 1980s adolescence, and explicitly coded them into the quest. “I’m a dreamer,” he says in flashback, with all the conviction of a man whose dreams have been supplanted by other people’s art: the music, books, games, and movies of his formative years now serve as the default fantasy mode for an entire population. The OASIS, and by extension the film, buckles under the weight of this garish second-hand nostalgia, where new ideas barely have space to register. The film’s energy crisis, and the mass migration to digital escapism, make for a rich premise, yet Ready Player Onepursues a generic quest narrative and leans aggressively into the pop culture detritus. “Welcome to the rebellion,” Art3mis says to Parzival, as though the rebellion – ostensibly against a manipulative conglomerate – wasn’t comprised of corporate products designed to make you feel like a rebel.
Spielberg has insisted that the nostalgia is peripheral to the story, but it’s so hardwired into the world of the source material that separating the two is impossible. Cataloguing the film’s every reference to iconic properties beloved by nerds would be both tiring and dull; suffice it to say that Spielberg’s own résumé – the Jurassic Park T-Rex gnashing at the Back to the Future DeLorean is just one glaring example – is present to distracting effect. Composer and Back to the Future veteran Alan Silvestri, meanwhile, wastes no opportunity to herald the exploits of the DeLorean with a self-cannibalising orchestral flourish. The experience is occasionally amusing, but mostly nauseating: a culture devouring itself like a CGI Ouroboros, the original texts stripped of meaning in favour of merchandising in the big, long now. At its lowest ebb, it’s Spielberg’s Lego Batman Movie.
The easy takeaway from all of this is that the geeks need to thoroughly disinherit the Earth, and it wouldn’t be incorrect. With little apparent irony, certain gamers and nerd bros are even proclaiming Ready Player One to be their very own Black Panther, and yet they’ve lorded over popular culture for so long now that the time of the nerd-as-underdog seems but a distant grain of sand being kicked into a teen-movie Poindexter’s eye. It’s not just that the movie’s insufferable cultural mashups pervert the source material – is there a more disheartening sight than watching the benevolent Iron Giant beating on Mechagodzilla? – it’s that it’s all in service of retrograde male fantasy, a wish-fulfilment narrative for sheltered dudes where a key plot point actually involves Halliday’s inability to kiss a girl with whom he’s infatuated. The offline reveal of fantasy cyberpunk Art3mis should have been a chance to dismantle the manic pixel dream girl cliché; instead, she turns out to be IRL babe Samantha (Olivia Cooke), draped in a Joy Division T-shirt and sporting a strategically placed “flaw” that’s meant to flatter the hero’s noble sense of empathy.
At worst, Ready Player One can scan like a rallying cry for the infantile nerd culture that has traditionally poisoned so much online movie discourse (and for whom book author Cline’s pal, the disgraced Harry Knowles, served as geek overlord) – that dying breed who loudly and embarrassingly howled about The Last Jedi’s perceived infraction on their precious kingdom. If anything, Ready Player One is the antithesis of that film: where Jedi, though leveraged on the enormous nostalgia of its fan base, gestured towards wiping the slate clean of our old ideas about heroes, Spielberg’s movie merely regurgitates them in ways contemptuously familiar.
What happens if future generations aren’t allowed to grow beyond this? In one of Ready Player One’s more intriguing sequences, the Gunters visit a cavernous hall of memories that has meticulously archived all of Halliday’s life and pursuits. It’s a deeply chilling scenario, in which canonised lists of movies – the beloved province of Men of the Internet – and generic childhood memories are preserved and pored over like spiritual commandments. Janusz Kamiński’s typically luminous photography frames Halliday’s archive as a holy temple, but the glassy spaces resemble nothing so much as the halls of San Diego Comic-Con – a sly inference you want to give Spielberg credit for, at least on a better day.
More fascinating is the apparent nostalgia that Spielberg feels, not for his actual childhood but for his childlike adult years. When he and long-time pal George Lucas once mined their boomer childhoods for comic book, adventure serial and fairytale inspiration, they were the among the first of the film-school generation to do so. Empowered by the technology of the era, they brought forth visions that felt fresh and buoyant, and – unlike the later facsimiles of their work – inadvertently embodied the cultural anxieties of the moment, from absent fatherhood to neo-fascism and American spiritualism. Ready Player One finds Spielberg lost in noisy reverie for the most derided aspects of that period, at risk of validating all those tedious pundits who persist in laying the blame for New Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy at his and Lucas’s feet. (It’s worth noting that Lucas, a visionary who always seemed to have no time for geeks and a delight in irritating them, would never have made a film this backward looking.)
Just as Netflix’s Stranger Things (a show made by people who grew up on second-hand memories of the ’80s) taps an abstracted version of an era, Spielberg is now reconstructing his own texts sans specificity, miring audiences in the warm but stunted glow of infinite adolescence. Ready Player One stares adoringly upon the ’80s as much as that decade – and specifically, Spielberg-abetted productions like Back to the Future – fetishised the 1950s with a false sense of nostalgia, conveniently eliding, if not outright celebrating, a historically repressive and conservative time.
Indeed, Back to the Future is a key text in Ready Player One, and not just for its superficial visual connections. Back to the Future’s uncanny 1989 sequel, written and directed by Spielberg protégé Robert Zemeckis, posits a future (2015, now receding into our very real past) that’s essentially indistinguishable from that of Ready Player One: ’80s ephemera abounds, as does the spectre of Spielberg (a hologram marquee threatens Jaws 19); both movies even share a crass Pizza Hut product placement “gag”. Back to the Future: Part II also saw Zemeckis ingeniously rebuild sequences from its predecessor, inserting his actors into a clever mix of old and new footage. A set piece in Ready Player One repurposes Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in just such a fashion, when the Gunters enter Halliday’s memory to move through the Overlook hotel’s crimson-bathed corridors and antechambers for all the laughs of a DreamWorks cartoon – a world removed from A.I., the last Spielberg-Kubrick synthesis. Zemeckis’ scenes, dismissed by critics at the time as a cynical construction, now seem like a curious examination of our desire to revisit and reshape past events, whereas in Ready Player One it just feels like a meme, retrofitted for Room 237 kicks. One imagines the possibilities if, instead of memory surfing to see The Shining, Ready Player One’s characters took in a screening of Ready Player One, and the movie, like a hyper-Zemeckis nightmare, began folding in on itself. It’s too much to hope for here, but it’s a fun diversion amongst the cacophony.
We know that Spielberg is smarter than this stuff, and maybe it’s unfair to begrudge him Ready Player One, a perfunctory “one for the audience” escapade that’s as skilfully composed, and technically assured, as his work tends to be. He still moves the camera like nobody’s business, and when the film steps out of its uninspired virtual reality, the old master – well, the one of Minority Report and War of the Worlds, at any rate – rattles off nimble action sequences among the physical clutter of the futuristic shantytowns. On occasion, such as a gravity-defying, bordering-on-erotic dance sequence, the movie even gets at ideas it feels too timid to approach elsewhere. Yet Spielberg’s best later-career work, films like Bridge of Spies and even Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, have an emotional resonance to their professionalism, and offer a compelling dialogue with the past that refracts not only his own childhood memories, but those he implanted in so much of his audience. Ready Player One connects as fan fiction, if at all.
The movie’s one memorable performance comes from Rylance, the invaluable late-Spielberg collaborator who suggests something extra-textual in his gentle, conflicted eyes – perhaps a man wearied, even a little terrified, by his slavish, all-consuming devotion to other people’s popular culture. Halliday’s ghost in the machine existence, echoing Jeff Bridges’ uncanny-valley turn in TRON: Legacy, points to a future in which the physical and the digital become synonymous, a possible solution to the crippling energy crisis and overcrowding the film portends. Somewhat perversely, Spielberg shows that he isn’t interested in the future here, and the film ends with an admonishing “what’s real is real” lesson that’s as progressive as being told by your great-grandparent to put down your device, go outside, and play with a stick.
Still, something about the longing for these cornball notions is almost touching, in a strange kind of way. Recall that David’s harrowing realisation in A.I. is appended by an eerily ambivalent coda, in which beings from a future civilisation reconstruct the android boy’s fondest childhood memory – his mother – and leave him suspended in a state of comforting illusion; it’s patently false, but for him, it’s as real as being there. It’s easy to forget, on account of his boyishness and startling productivity, that Spielberg, at 71, is approaching an age where other directors have retired or long vanished into obscurity, and looking back with blurry, even delusional affection is almost a given at this point – however historically disingenuous it may be. For the rest of us, though, it’s time to let the past die.