Steven Spielberg, a filmmaker whose unique approach to blockbuster cinema defined the '80s and '90s for many moviegoers, released his newest movie today: Ready Player One.
Based on the best-selling novel by Ernest Cline (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Ready Player One is wall-to-wall pop culture nostalgia, filled with hundreds of Easter eggs from any popular brand that would say yes, from Back to the Future to Spawn to Halo.
While Spielberg was a key player in the development of many of the films referenced in Ready Player One, its millennial fetishization of '80s nostalgia felt, at the time he was announced, like an odd fit for a filmmaker who was already almost forty years old by the time Back to the Future hit theaters.
So, now that the film is out...was Steven Spielberg the right choice for Ready Player One?
Well...yes and no.
A little context: It is difficult to overstate how deeply Steven Spielberg changed Hollywood. When he made his big splash with 1975's Jaws, he had already been directing for over a decade, cutting his teeth on TV shows like Columbo and even a made-for-TV movie written by The Twilight Zone's Richard Matheson. Jaws, though, fundamentally changed the business of movies and kicked off an unprecedented string of blockbuster successes.
Something that is easy to forget in a world where David Fincher does TV and Christopher Nolan makes Batman movies is that in the '70s, it was uncommon for the most technically-proficient filmmakers in Hollywood to take on crowd-pleasing, effects-heavy blockbusters. "Serious" filmmakers tended to focus on genres that might make money, but only because the movie was so good. There were (and always have been) exceptions to that, of course, but for a period of time, almost everyone in the film industry was in agreement that Steven Spielberg was not only the most bankable, but also probably the best, mainstream director working in Hollywood.
Decades later, filmmakers still talk about chasing the "Amblin" feel, referring to Spielberg's production company, noted for movies like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Goonies, and Gremlins. It is that feel that Spielberg tried to recapture in Ready Player One (and often succeeded). Having Spielberg direct means that the pursuit of Amblin can be somewhat less self-conscious than it would be if the studio had pursued a more noted pop culture junky for the film.
Ready Player One is also a well-acted, beautifully-realized film that comes from a simple premise and a flawed script. The high concept has a lot of promise and the execution is a lot of fun, but the script is a key element here because it feels in places like Steven Spielberg's biggest asset to the movie is where he may have curbed some of the writers' impulses and kept the movie from gazing too deeply into its own, shallow navel.
Over the years, Spielberg has been accused of sterilizing his movies and failing to understand the changing interests of the filmgoing audience. There is some merit to those accusations, but what is interesting is how closely they align Spielberg with the film's villain, a cartoonish corporate archetype played by Ben Mendelsohn. In the film, we know his character is the bad guy because he doesn't actually care about The Oasis -- the film's massive (and massively lucrative) artificial world -- but only cares about how to more effectively monetize it for real-world gain.
In Spielberg's case, the fact that he did not grow up with the pop culture minutia of the '80s and fails to share the screenwriters' passion for it seems to help the film. He has a distance from the reverence for the material that Cline seems to have -- and which is shared by Halliday, the film's corporate messiah. He does not have the disdain for Back to the Future and John Hughes that Mendelsohn's Sorrento does, but rather the capacity to both appreciate popular culture and not be overwhelmed by his love for it.
The high concept of this film might well have been served with a stronger screenplay; this one has flaws, and it is Spielberg's ability to downplay those flaws and embrace the humanity of the heroes that makes it work. And with a better screenplay, perhaps the way to go would have been to utterly surrender the film to the love of content in a way that Smith, Tarantino, or James Gunn might be able to do. And therein lies something kind of interesting: Spielberg took the source material he had and the screenplay Cline provided, and made what is probably the best movie that could possibly have been made based on what he had in front of him.
Spielberg, also, is arguably not an ideal candidate for this kind of movie, since he lacks the visceral connection to '80s culture that so defines the film and its heroes. But in order to hand the movie over to someone who has that connection, it would have been wise to rewrite, downplay the flaws in the script, and give that mythical fanboy director something more straightforward to work with, so that s/he could infuse their own passion and quirks into it.
Was Spielberg the right call for Ready Player One? Well, yes and no -- but for the version we got? Absolutely.