“Ready Player One” further proves Spielberg’s best days are behind him
If you’ve paid attention to Steven Spielberg’s career arc, and it certainly is an arc, “Ready Player One” won’t come as much of a surprise. What makes it a fascinating piece is how on the nose the whole thing is. Some of that comes from the source material, of course, but what makes this compelling is that Spielberg chose to direct the film in the first place.
Given a moment of thought it makes perfect sense; not because Spielberg and the novel are a great match, they’re actually a terrible match if you hoped for an inventive adaptation. They are, however, perfect for each other in the way that guy you hate and that other guy you hate always made perfect sense for one another.
That’s who Spielberg is now: the old man who refuses to change. I say that not because youth guarantees innovation, but because one of America’s greatest living directors has always needed to. Stagnation as a creator is to die a certain death, something only tacitly acknowledged in “Ready Player One,” a film where culture died in 2018 — don’t spend too much time thinking about why, because the film doesn’t.
There’s little to no world building in the film; that becomes brutally obvious when you realize you’ve seen the opening if you’ve seen one trailer. A voiceover to set up a complicated universe becomes modus operandi for a movie with so many unearned payoffs you start to think the director used micro-transactions to get there.
So much of what is harmful about “Ready Player One” comes from how audiences relate to creators. When the creator of the Oasis (James Halliday), the virtual reality landscape that dominates reality in the near future, dies, he sets the world on an obsessive hunt through his own life and memories. He is a man so unconvincingly filled with regret about his life, his creation and his legacy that it can hardly be called a theme in the movie — yet one thing that persists is the one way relationship between creator and audience.
That’s something Spielberg lived through during the entirety of his heyday. The Internet changed things, of course, and it's something “Ready Player One” gets wrong about fandom. The idea that those who spend hours online consumed by “Star Wars” and the latest Marvel film don’t create is preposterous; even in a world with no mechanisms for blockbuster films, are we to believe there’s no fan fiction? No student films? No kids with cameras? There’s a Minecraft world for god’s sakes. Even in a dystopia, there's always creation.
Halliday exists as an imperfect avatar for Spielberg, and it’s almost certainly what drew the director to the project. If Spielberg feels discomfort towards his legacy or legion of fans, he certainly doesn’t feel it enough to change who he is, or who he’s always been. Since “Jaws” hit theaters in 1975, Spielberg has changed so little it’s almost concerning. One of the trademarks of Halliday’s character is his fear of change, his lust for nostalgia — we’re meant to believe he came around in the end, despite there being no evidence to support it.
With Spielberg, as film after film is released on autopilot, it’s worth wondering why he bothers showing up at all. “Schindler’s List” came out in 1993, and there’s not a soul alive who thinks he’s capable of making a better film. Perhaps that’s not a fair bar, but can you be considered one of the greatest directors of all time if you’re not consistently compared to your best work? As Spielberg schlepps through mediocre adaptations that feel best suited to the early 2000s scrap heap, it’s worth wondering if we really need him anymore at all.