The division of his professional life into two neat halves – as a kiddie movie director of films like ‘E.T.’, ‘Jaws’ and‘Jurassic Park’ and as an adult art film maker of ‘The Colour Purple’ and ‘Lincoln’ – has turned Steven Spielberg a little schizophrenic. Torn between the enjoyment of pop culture and the fulfilment of a life lived in history, politics and literature, he seems to be comfortable in neither and is making too many movies with concessions, and doing them too quickly for comfort. Scarcely on the heels of his insubstantial and overly dramatised ’The Post’, is his homage to pop culture, ‘Ready Player One’.
Given his status as an artist and a film marketing genius, he needs to please no one but himself. Yet here he is desperate to connect with a millennial and post millennial audience, in a film about the difference between virtual reality and the real world, something that has been reconstructed very effectively by directors like Christopher Nolan and Steven Soderbergh.
Set in 2045 in Columbus, Ohio, this movie is about a desolate post digital America where people live in buildings which look like cages piled on top of each other. To escape the effects of the social and intellectual devastation that such a world has created, people are addicted to a virtual reality universe called ‘OASIS’ where you can live an alternative existence that is much more entertaining and socially fulfilling. By just putting on a suit, a pair of VRF glasses and headphones, you can have an alias, or an ‘avatar’, and look and sound like the person you wish to be. So the teenaged orphan, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) our hero in the film, is ‘Parzival’, and his soon to be girlfriend, Samantha Cook (Olivia Cooke) is ‘Art3mis’. Naturally, they look much better in the virtual world, and have a choice of gender, race or sexual orientation that they want to live out.
The creator of ‘OASIS’, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), has been dead for some time, and the organisation is now taken over by his underling, the present CEO of the company, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). This man has fascist tendencies and does not want a democratic set up, in which the most talented individuals run the company, as Halliday originally intended. So the conflict situation is clearly etched out, and what we get in the movie is a shop worn and cliched battle in the virtual reality world between the young people who support the legacy of the founder and believe in the philosophy of his founding principles, and the would be tin pot dictator on the other side.
However, one outstanding sequence needs to be mentioned. This is when the ‘avatars’ select one of Halliday’s favourite movies, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ and enter the film, turning the scenes into virtual reality. One of the ‘avatars’ has never seen the film before, and so he has no clue what horrific scene he is walking into. Once he inadvertently steps in, Spielberg multiplies and transforms the horror of Kubrick’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel, with new technology not available to the maker in 1980. For this sequence alone, the film is worth a watch.
As in all Spielberg movies, there is technical virtuoso in ‘Ready Player One’ – an innate ability to balance sound, space, time and movement, to create a magical experience of movie watching. What is missing in the film is a thought worth thinking about, a philosophical core. It was once present in his work, before he became too anxious to remain relevant as a film maker to new generations of movie watchers. Spielberg needs only to be relevant to himself and the way he sees the world.