Ready Player One is hardly Steven Spielberg’s best feature film – heck, it isn’t even his best feature film of the past twelve months – but it might be the surest grasp of his talents, the most elegantly inelegant spiral he’s mounted in years. While his real masterpieces all work to some extent without him – Jaws boasts an astonishing full-throated and sharp-toothed screenplay, Raiders of the Lost Ark is deliriously sardonic with the question of its protagonist’s competence and narrative agency – Ready Player One, much like War of the Worlds, is good, to the extent that it is good, exclusively because of the Spielberg quotient. Boasting a screenplay which breaches questions of reality and authorship with an at-times mind-numbing obviousness, Ready Player One works as both a tornado of entertainment and a centrifuge of existential chaos only because Spielberg, seemingly singularly, knows not merely to mount this sort of production but to turn it against itself in ways which seem earned rather than cloyingly auto-critical. At its best, which is always when Spielberg exposes the inflection point between tornado of entertainment and centrifuge of chaos, between rocketing us to the apex of delirium and the abyss of purposeless, out-of-control motion, Ready Player One is not only testament to his directorial abilities, but to his thematic hunger.
Even better: although Ready Player One is frequently an exhibit of Spielberg’s craft, never allows it to become a museum to his greatness. At the level of visual craft, Spielberg’s film always feels like it seriously questioning Spielberg’s own showman’s flair and society’s fascination with pop culture, even if the film is hardly reaching into the darkest reservoirs of, say, Adorno and Horkheimer’s skepticism about our culture industry and the popular apparatuses that sustain it. The array of images Spielberg conjures certainly reflect the heart of a showman, if not a carnival barker, but an inquisitive rather than self-satisfied one. Put simply, although the camera is always bursting into motion and pirouetting in circles around us, it never feels like we’re catching it in the midst of a congratulatory victory lap or a premeditated pat on the back.
Instead, adapted from Ernest Cline’s taxonomic ‘80s classification system masquerading as a novel, Spielberg’s Ready Player One finds the saint of modern cinematic popular culture surveying the landscape he has wrought after nearly a half-century of filmmaking. But his reaction is embodied not so much in a supportive nod or a dismissive head-shake but with a frenzied, roving whip-pan just hoping to be able to survey the landscape at all. Spielberg’s camera, seemingly unable to keep up with, let alone contextualize, the undead avatars of our uncertain grasp on life he has raised, is working over-time. His images glisten, yes, but like James Brown, reverberating not pleased egomania but the sweat of a man who still feels like a hungry dog, despite having won the world over. Punished and stoked in equal measure by his brazen vectors of pure, centrifugal motion that resist clarification or sedimentation on the screen, there’s an infuriating quality to Ready Player One that suggests a pop-cultural landscape that resists any grasp to clarify and showcase it. While Ernest Cline’s book upon which the film is based is infamous for canonizing ‘80s pop culture, the film itself seems to suggest a destructive corpus run amok.
I don’t know whether any of this was Spielberg’s intention, but the narrative provides winks and nudges. Ready Player One suggests Spielberg fashioning himself as a demented Willy Wonka, a man who, like this film’s James Halliday (Mark Rylance), stimulates the mind and throttles the imagination toward both good and ill, hiding golden tickets for future aspirational filmmakers throughout the cinematic landscape where, at the potential risk of their souls, they may seek fame and fortune. For ill, certainly, if current arch-capitalist Nolan Sorrentino (Ben Mendelsohn) is to be taken seriously in his desires to win a competition in the VR world of Oasis that Halliday built long ago, and which has become the virtual hub for millions (possibly billions) to live most of their lives after the economic collapse of the world (or at least the US) in this film’s fiction. If Sorrentino wins what amounts to a three-pronged fetch-quest, he plans to colonize nearly all of the VR real estate with commercialized advertisement, mutating it into a capitalist’s wet dream and a vise grip for people who would still rather live in a capitalized-Oasis than the depressing reality they come from.
But wouldn’t you know it, one of the unwashed masses who Sorrentino would love to bathe with advertisements for their own subsistence is Cleveland, Ohio teenager Wade (Tye Sheridan), who laments everyday life and lives only to be strapped in to the VR world he’d rather call him, mediated of course through his avatar Parzival. Along with a crew of digital and real-life friends, but mainly digital avatar Art3mis (Oilvia Cooke), they become the primary obstacles to Sorrentino’s all-consuming brand of late-late-late capitalist takeover.
Which is a lot of summary just to explain that Wade and friends need to win three challenges to beat out Sorrentino, and the film itself isn’t always dedicated to streamlining that summary. Its gears corrode with every stilted line, wheezing and crumbling through the belabored metaphors of the concept. But there lies Spielberg, our hero in waiting, not simply oiling the motors but, one suspects intentionally, over-clocking the gears and flooding the transmission until his pop culture edifice threatens to explode with sheer momentum. Rather than showing off or reflecting his effects, Spielberg seems to refract them, imagining something constantly ready to slip away from him, a landscape he created but which even he cannot wrangle into place. Which is to say, Spielberg scours the pop-cultural landscape he helped inaugurate – one which his legacy stands totemically over – and observes not only a liberating lightning-bolt but an uncannily terrifying perpetual-motion-machine that exists simultaneously in free-fall and standstill. His over-caffeinated camera careening around the landscape past the point of certainty, Spielberg suggests a computerized world where the infectious drive for endless motion is perilously close to a violent incoherence and a perhaps-irresolvable perceptual instability.
Maybe that’s too generous a reading, but the visual style – somewhat less infatuated with this kaleidoscopic elan of this material than worried about how to make sense of it – does harmonize with the themes of the film in a way the script never could. And regardless of your takeaway on Spielberg’s observations on pop-culture, let no one claim he doesn’t observe with a thunderstruck confidence. Which is for the best, since little else in the film exhibits such breathlessly refined craft. And, although Adam Stockhausen’s production design and Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography’s conjure both a desaturated, depleted “real” world and a hyperactive, edge-of-sanity VR game world, part of the problem with a post-modern film is that any interpretation is dangerously ambidextrous. Banality becomes a commentary on banality, and such, meaning that movies like Ready Player One sometimes suggest potent undertows of ambivalence and other times approximates a crass, cynical double-take. Certainly, the screenplay does everything in its power to bake-in its own anxieties about the world it renders, but the triteness of the concept and the self-satisfied quality of the writing tend to embalm the film in its chest-thumping audience-critique rather than genuinely exploring why people find themselves enraptured by visions of possibility and alternate existence, however divorced from reality.
Spielberg, however, does seem to pose those questions, albeit inductively, in his very style, inviting our cortexes to a visual high and then tilting us around and around to the point of sickness, exposing a tipping point where kinesis metastasizes to a road-to-nowhere. The Spielberg who unleashed that howling id-blast Duel into the world in ’71 as a calling card for a whole career, this is not. But if not a canny summation of the man’s career, Ready Player One is a sort of pop-culture taking-stock. With Duel, Spielberg hurtled forth with an unholy momentum, etching out a linear pathway along the highway of cinema as if demanding a shot at the big-time here and now. Ready Player One, the gilded, maximalist opposite of Duel’s grotty, minimalist venom if ever there was one, is no less crazed an affair, but it suggests not a violent pop-cultural forward thrust so much as a potent and provocative unraveling, a pop-culture handcar running off the rails like a demented tilt-a-whirl run amok, a corpus that has lost the track entirely and may need to be righted.
Duel’s destination, success, was right ahead of it – Spielberg’s task was merely to show us the way, and to prove himself along the pock-marked path of the New Hollywood. Ready Player One’s task is more provocative, although it isn’t nearly as successful at it, not is the generous reading of its success nearly as iron-clad. For me, though, Ready Player One suggests, in its blurred, crazed, damaged momentum that pop-culture can, for better or worse, think of little left to do but look backwards, and that doing so may send it either careening in untold directions to blaze unfathomable trails to uncharted lands. Or, conversely, skidding around in circles to nowhere in particular, not unlike an Ouroboros having gluttonously indulged on everything, finding itself left with nothing to do but self-cannibalize and devour its own anus just to maintain a facsimile of productivity. Or of any kind of directional movement at all.