Thursday, May 30, 2024

Review: Steven Spielberg Directs Futuristic, Glib, “Ready Player One” Like He’s 41, Not 71


It would have been if Steven Spielberg had just kept directing important films like “The Post” and “Lincoln.” He’s 71, and it’s okay if he were done with whimsies like “ET” or “Close Encounters” or even “Jurassic Park.” He has nothing to prove to anyone.

And yet, here is “Ready Player One,” which feels like it’s directed by a 40 year old Spielberg. While making “The Post” and thinking about a remake of “West Side Story,” Spielberg at 71 is still able to find wonder and amazement, shows an affinity for a much younger audience and gets all the inside jokes of a decade– the Eighties– when his films ruled the cinematic world.

“Ready Player One” really made me think about Spielberg in new ways tonight. Like, how is it possible he found the energy and vigor for an adaptation of a futuristic novel that pokes fun at itself while exploring the world of Virtual Reality, avatars and video games? I guess it’s the same way he made “Schindler’s List” and “Jurassic Park” in the same year (1993).  He’s, you know, a genius.

So “Ready Player One” mixes actors with animation and is— sorry James Cameron– kind of the sequel to “Avatar.” At least, it’s what follows “Avatar.” Many of the characters in the story have avatars– alter egos in the virtual world– and boy, you’ll want one too when you see theirs. The thing is, Spielberg has made the two groups seamless to the point where they interact and even they seem surprised about it.

The year is 2045 from Ernest Cline’s novel, and the world is in chaos. The only refuge is participating in a VR world called Oasis, but Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is the big meanie who wants to take Oasis over. In his quest for power, he’ll battle some heroic and zealous young people played by Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki, and Philip Zhao. They want to restore the Oasis created by Mark Rylance’s James Halliday, a genius who’s died trying to protect his invention. Before he dies, Halliday wills a priceless “Easter egg” to anyone who can solve the puzzle of Oasis that he’s left behind.

And that’s Cline’s meta wink within a wink, since Easter eggs– cultural references that are visual and spoken mostly about movies from the 80s– are hidden throughout the movie. There is a long riff on “The Shining” and plenty more nods to everything from “Chuckie,” other signature horror films and science fiction. Even if you miss 50% of them you’ll get a kick out of the ones you catch. There are plenty of references, for example, to “Back to the Future” –which Spielberg produced in the 80s — including an omnipresent Delorean and a Rubik’s Cube object called “the Zemeckis cube.”

And just to make you feel at ease there are two times when the massive number of insider jokes is referenced– once by Sorrento, who tells the kids “he gets it and he can be funny, too, and during “The Shining” section when one character upbraids another for having never seen the original film.

(I am sure Entertainment Weekly must have a whole guide to the insider stuff on their website.)

The cherry on the top: a wonderful soundtrack, a la “Guardians of the Galaxy,” with plenty of recognizable hits from the 70s, 80s, 90s. I hope there’s a CD with all of them on it.

What a romp “Ready Player One” is– I can’t wait to see it again. I expect the weekend box office will be full of people who feel the same way!




Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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