Ready Player One is a book that immediately endears itself to most FANGRRLS because, like its main characters Wade Watts, Aech, and Art3mis, we’ve grown up on a healthy appetite of 1980s pop culture. So when it was announced that Steven Spielberg would be directing the movie, I was just as excited as everyone else that the legend would be bringing it to life. Now, though, I can’t help but think that he was the worst person for the job.
OK, “worst” might be the wrong word. He’s a brilliant director who has made some of the greatest movies in cinematic history, and his adaptation of Ernest Cline's novel is textbook Spielberg, but that’s where the problem lies—it’s textbook Spielberg. He made a movie that too closely resembles the cheesy '80s films that it references, as well as some of his own more PG offerings, causing the nuance from the page to be absolutely lost on the big screen.
The people in Cline’s dystopian near-future aren’t living in the '80s—they’re living in 2044, on a planet Earth that is struggling to cope with “an ongoing energy crisis, catastrophic climate change, widespread famine, poverty, and disease” as well as “half a dozen wars.” So as much as Wade’s journey delves into monotonous, somewhat Patrick Bateman-esque detail of both mainstream and obscure film, TV, video games, music and comic books, the overarching narrative and tone stays very much in the 21st century. As a reader, you really understand that this is a dismal future that we could soon end up heading toward in real life.
The film, in comparison, feels like Spielberg, Cline and the script’s co-writer Zak Penn have stripped all of the gritty, social commentary out of the story to make it more like Back to the Future or The Goonies, but with a less compelling narrative. It glosses over the deeper issues of class, poverty, identity and privilege faced in the book, removes a significant amount of Aech’s backstory, and gives little time to certain deaths that occur, or retcons them completely, thus providing a far more shallow observation of this dystopian world that only offers up one real message:
Don’t spend all your time online, kids.
Instead, Spielberg and his team focused their time and effort on the film’s aesthetic and delivering some complex CGI sequences that are just aching to be turned into a theme park ride at the earliest opportunity. It’s certainly where most of the praise for the movie has been directed, with the likes of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Edgar Wright offering kudos for his skill in creating action sequences for the big screen. And they are right; these moments are where the filmmaker delivers, but an abundance of CGI does not a great movie make, and when it’s paired with corny dialogue and a weak narrative, the film as a whole is left feeling rather dated.
That’s why I would love to have seen what a more modern filmmaker, whose work isn’t already a pop culture reference in Ready Player One, would have done with it. Someone like Taika Waititi who revolutionized the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Thor: Ragnarok last year. His film was heavily influenced by '70s-'80s sci-fi fantasy and it certainly delivered that in terms of its synthesized score, composed by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, as well as the vivid aesthetic that gives a headbanging nod to Flash Gordon and Buckaroo Banzai. But the narrative retains the modernity of Taika’s voice and humor so it never allows itself to become a poor imitation of the '80s pop culture it references.
The problem for Spielberg is that he is too much of a pop culture reference himself to be able to look at the Ready Player One narrative with any sort of objectivity. At this point in his career, he’s more of a James Halliday figure and the script calls for a Wade-like director who could have better translated the themes in the book, that at times are uplifting, sinister, edgy and heartwarming, to the screen.
Instead, Spielberg focused on the kaleidoscopic nostalgia of ‘80s pop culture and allowed himself to get lost in the aesthetic OASIS of it all, when a different director, with more perspective, might have been able to deliver the gritty reality the story needed.