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How a severely underrated movie turned Steven Spielberg into a 21st century Andy Warhol

Editor’s Note: The director Steven Spielberg turns 75 on Dec. 18. To mark that momentous occasion, the Forward is running a series of essays reassessing his films. Read more of our “Spielberg at 75” series here.

What is “Ready Player One” trying to say?

It’s a silly question, but an inescapable one.

Steven Spielberg’s 28th feature film was the rare blockbuster to address urgent matters like screen addiction, the metastasis of 20th-century American mass entertainment, and the low-key despair that leads good people to surrender to both. Anyone looking for a clear message about these things, however, is going to come away sorely disappointed. “Ready Player One” has nothing definitive to say about VR or Batman — or rather, it has many different things to say about them, and no single one of them drowns out the others. Trying to reduce it to “yea” or ”nay,” sneering satire or slack-jawed propaganda, would be like trying to reduce Beethoven’s Ninth to a B-sharp.

It’s important to bear this in mind from the start, because Spielberg makes films of such emotional directness that it’s easy to miss the nuance hiding in plain view, like broken glass in water. Seen one way, the end of “Empire of the Sun” is the purest schmaltz: a wide-eyed, 12 -ear-old Christian Bale, bending over Miranda Richardson’s dead body and then glancing worshipfully skyward as bright light shoots by and a choir of angels croons. And then you realize that the light isn’t Miranda Richardson’s soul ascending to heaven. It’s the glow of a distant A-bomb reducing 70,000 bodies to gas.

It takes a good director to convey childlike wonder or horror but a great director to convey both in the same breath. Spielberg has inhabited this (bitter-)sweet spot for most of his career. He is, it’s been pointed out before, a master of happy endings that are also sad endings: “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Minority Report,” “A.I.,” “Schindler’s List.” A John Williams score is often the only thing standing between joy and abject despair. Sometimes, the more joyful the music, the more subtly, hollowly despairing things feel in hindsight. Not that everyone notices:

“Spielberg,” the novelist and critic Adam Mars-Jones superciliously put it, “has a very limited idea about what a film score can do,” though I must superciliously counter that Adam Mars-Jones has a very limited idea about what a Spielberg score can do. In Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” when Alex De Large kicks an old man in the gut to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain,” we know the song isn’t meant to lighten the mood. But when Frank Abagnale comes crawling back to the FBI at the end of “Catch Me If You Can,” the strings are almost bright and twinkly and Harry Mancini-esque enough to make you forget that Frank has become one of a hundred sad-sack suits, that the only reason he’s here is because he has nowhere else to go.

“Ready Player One,” released in March 2018, a few months after Spielberg’s 71st birthday, begins with another inspired bit of musical counterpoint. The music is “Jump,” the lead single from Van Halen’s album “1984” and a convenient signpost in countless 80s-set movies and TV shows, here contrasted for comic effect with the intertitle “COLUMBUS, OHIO, 2045.”

Spielberg immediately tops this joke with a bigger one: in 2045, Columbus is a gray, steaming slum, full of trailers stacked on top of trailers and altogether as dull as “Jump” is peppy. Then again, David Lee Roth once claimed he wrote the song after watching a TV news story about a man who threatened to commit suicide by throwing himself off a building. Reality is grimmer than the pop culture that enlivens it — but so is pop culture sometimes.

I can only assume Spielberg knew something about the history of “Jump” when he was choosing the music for “Ready Player One,” because the grimness of pop culture is impossible to ignore in the opening scene. The narrator and protagonist, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, likeably sheepish), emerges from his trailer and climbs down to street level, and as he does the camera brushes by his neighbors, nearly all of whom are wearing VR headsets and wallowing in their silly private pleasures: one guy’s playing tennis, a doughy middle-aged lady grinds a stripper pole, and so on. It’s significant that we see them enjoying a virtual world before we see what they’re enjoying — as the photographer Diane Arbus understood, there’s something inherently pathetic and poignant about the sight of people having fun, unaware of how ridiculous they look.

Whatever contempt these opening shots encourage, however, is tempered by the setting (who wouldn’t wear a headset all day in a place like this?), not to mention the fact that we, watching “Ready Player One” at home or on an iPhone or in the dentist’s waiting room, probably look just as ridiculous — and even if we knew how we looked, would we care enough to stop?

People escape into fantasy because, for whatever reason, they find reality intolerable — “people” being the film’s characters; the film’s viewers; and, not least of all, the film’s director — the lonely, bullied AV nerd who went to the movies every Saturday as a teenager because it was better than listening to his parents fight.

Wade is the hero of “Ready Player One,” but the most interesting character by far is James Halliday, another lonely nerd who grows up to be a beloved billionaire. VR has become the national pastime of the 2040s, Wade explains, thanks to Oasis, the virtual world Halliday designed before his sudden death.

As played by Mark Rylance, a Spielberg regular since “Bridge of Spies” (2015), Halliday is the most herbivorous of tech moguls, all gentle laughs and nervous stammers and cute little jokes about “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” — Silicon Valley without the toxic masculinity. As such, he is very hard to hate, even after you realize that he has almost single-handedly ruined culture by remaking it in his image.

A child of the 80s, Halliday fills the Oasis with allusions to his favorite childhood video games and movies and TV shows and toys — for the right price, users can own the Holy Hand Grenade from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” or the motorcycle from “Akira.” Because Halliday’s Oasis is stuffed with artifacts of late-20th-century pop culture, and because the Oasis is the only place worth going anymore, people in the 2040s have no choice but to become late-20th-century pop culture aficionados, too — by all appearances, nobody has bothered to write a song or direct a movie since the late 90s.

Thus, Wade knows every John Hughes movie and every dance routine from “Saturday Night Fever” (another character describes disco as “old-school,” but in 2045, everything is old-school). He even knows Halliday’s favorite movie quote, which comes from Richard Donner’s “Superman” and happens to be delivered — rather worryingly, now that I think of it — by Lex Luthor.

Wade has more practical reasons for studying his idol’s taste. After Halliday dies, the world learns that he has hidden three keys somewhere in the digital wilderness. The first person to collect the full set will win half a trillion dollars and complete control of the Oasis — which is to say, complete control of the only world that matters. The quest for the three keys, encompassing chases and races and fights and zombies and Freddy Krueger, comprises the meat of the movie’s plot, though often it’s more fun to scour the corners of the screen for telling details and inside jokes — “world-building,” as screenplay gurus insist on calling it.

Some of these details are delightful (the more Hollywood movies you know, the more “ohhhhs” you murmur along the way), while others are fascinating in their dystopian ingenuity: e.g., the rival VR company, IOI, generates most of its income via “loyalty centers,” in which debt-slave gamers are forced to hunt for Halliday’s keys all day long.

The CEO of IOI, Nolan Sorrento (played by Ben Mendelsohn, doing a nice pastiche of every 80s movie principal), has an evil plan to infect the virtual world with advertisements: “We can sell up to 80% of an individual’s visual field before inducing seizures!”

No less than Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” in which Allied cinephiles single-handedly win World War II, “Ready Player One” is a couch potato’s daydream, an alternate reality in which being able to name the college from “Animal House” isn’t merely useful but the most useful skill in the universe (the film was based on a novel of the same name by Ernest Cline, a self-professed fanboy and, to give you some idea, owner of a replica of the “Back to the Future” DeLorean).

More than a few critics have accused “Ready Player One” of mindless escapism and not unreasonably, though “mindful escapism” is perhaps the more appropriate description. Spielberg isn’t blind to the perils of escapism—can anybody watch this movie’s opening sequence and disagree? — but he isn’t immune to its charms, either. Visually, “Ready Player One” expertly straddles beauty and disgust: it’s tasteless to the point of avant-garde, teeming with rainbow-vomit wide shots of doohickeys and robots and brightly-clad superheroes. (The film was lensed by Spielberg’s longtime collaborator Janusz Kamiński shortly after “The Post” wrapped, which is basically the cinematographic equivalent of turning in a history test, eating a dozen Fruit Roll-Ups, and flailing about on the playground.)

What beauty there is in the Oasis can be felt in the movement of the camera more strongly than in any individual object. Like the Terry Gilliam of “Brazil,” another dirty, homage-clogged dystopia, Spielberg’s camera is forever gliding over or through or around things, un-jumbling the jumble. For the first of the film’s several dynamite set pieces, Wade (or rather, his digital avatar, Parzival) races through an obstacle-peppered Manhattan, skidding and swerving to avoid wrecking balls and King Kong and T-Rex and the Batmobile, and what’s miraculous is how non-chaotic the whole thing feels, how unobtrusively we move from medium shot to wide shot to slo-mo to close-up. When there’s a cut, which is quite rarely, it never upsets our sense of where we are or what we’re looking at. The Oasis may feel like a migraine or a seizure most of the time, but given the right guide, it’s a blast.

The question of who the right guide is — who can be trusted with authority, who deserves it and who wants it — comes up a lot in “Ready Player One,” even by Spielberg standards. The arch-authorities in his movies are a rotten bunch (a short list would have to include the mayor from “Jaws,” Nixon in “The Post,” Lamar Burgess in “Minority Report,” Hitler in “Schindler’s List,” and the various granite-jawed goons in “E.T.”). Most often, his sympathies have pointed downward toward the outsiders and misfits and children, or, more recently, to the mid-level people, halfway between power and powerlessness.

Seen this way, “Ready Player One” seems like the odd duck in the Spielberg canon — the cuddliest character, Halliday, is a CEO! Since the villain, Sorrento, is a CEO as well, I suppose the argument could be made that Spielberg (net worth $3.7 billion, as of 2021) is setting up a false dichotomy between Halliday and Sorrento, the nice boss and the mean boss, much as Dickens filled his novels with good rich guys and bad rich guys while ignoring the question of whether anyone, good or bad, needs to be rich.

There’s certainly something to this argument, though ask yourself: which character does more damage — Halliday, the loveable visionary who invents entertainments so addictive people literally stop solving the real world’s problems, or Sorrento, the greedy buffoon who wants to monetize Halliday’s inventions? On repeated viewings, the deepest schism in “Ready Player One” turns out to be not between Halliday and Sorrento but between Halliday and Halliday, and, by the same token, between Spielberg and Spielberg. The shy kid who originally turned to entertainment as a tonic for his own loneliness has become famous and beloved beyond his wildest dreams, and also condemned the world to an endless state of lonely adolescence. Not for nothing does Halliday leaves behind a key-clue that reads, “A creator who hates his creation.”

Which leads me to the most discussed and debated part of “Ready Player One.” The creation-hating creator turns out to be Stephen King, and the creation turns to be Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (which King grumpily disavowed). And so, midway through the film, Wade and his friends find themselves in an Oasis version of the Overlook Hotel, running from a river of blood, then an axe-waving witch, and finally an army of zombies — even though, as Wade mutters, “There are no zombies in ‘The Shining.’”

Creating this part of “Ready Player One” required Spielberg’s F/X team to scan a print of Kubrick’s film and reconstruct the Overlook byte by byte, slowly drowning the old analog footage in goofy new CGI. Judging by many critics’ responses, Spielberg couldn’t have been any crasser if he’d dug up Kubrick’s corpse and dressed it in a bear costume.

I don’t disagree, honestly. It is crass to recycle footage from someone else’s film, especially when the “someone else” is Stanley Kubrick, a director so protective of his work that he sent projectionists prints of “Barry Lyndon” with a 10-point list of instructions. All the same, Kubrick and Spielberg were close friends for almost 20 years, and as with so much of “Ready Player One,” it’s hard to separate what’s tacky about the Overlook Hotel sequence from what’s daring and genuinely brilliant about it.

The critics who complained that Spielberg was defiling a sacred cinematic text — Richard Brody, writing in the New Yorker, complained that he “reduces it to a few goofball theme-park memes” — missed the bigger point: “The Shining” has already been defiled, fed through the pop culture meat-grinder, meme-ified half to death. It’s a Halloween costume, a TNT rerun, a “Simpsons” reference; by desecrating the already-desecrated, then, Spielberg is drawing our attention to this state of affairs, in much the same way that Andy Warhol, by copying Marylin Monroe’s face ad infinitum and smearing it in gaudy colors, drew attention to the fact that Marilyn Monroe™ was a consumer product well before Warhol got his hands on her.

There are, sure enough, no zombies in “The Shining,” but “The Shining” has long since become a zombified version of itself — and if pop culture can swallow the almighty Stanley Kubrick, it can swallow anybody.

How should motion picture artists respond? How does Spielberg, a titan of pop culture, respond? What is “Ready Player One” trying to say? Plenty, I hope I’ve made clear, but also nothing at all — Spielberg doesn’t do propaganda or didacticism, and it’s his willingness to venture forth into the unknown, to remain ignorant even of his own artistic intentions, that makes this film frustrating for some viewers but endlessly fascinating for others.

Maybe “Ready Player One” is an overdose of escapist fun, nothing more. Maybe the overdose doubles as a cure for escapism — Spielberg the stern father, forcing us to inhale every last cigarette in the pack to ensure that we’ll never, ever smoke again. And maybe it’s the other way around — what at first purports to be a cure ends up perpetuating the disease.

Or maybe “Ready Player One” suggests a different kind of escape from escapism. The massive, pregnant absence in the film, as in most of Spielberg, is sex. We know from Wade’s squeamish, stammered narration that people go to the Oasis to get off, but we also know that even James Halliday wasn’t clever enough to invent a good digital alternative to a warm, sighing body — and as such, the erotic is always just out of reach. At the film ends, however, Wade has decided to shut down the Oasis for a few days each month — “reality,” he explains while making out with the girl of his dreams — “is the only thing that’s real.”

This is probably wishful thinking. Smut fueled the rise of cinema in the early 20th century, VCR in the 80s, and the internet in the 2000s, and it’s not hard to imagine a future in which reality isn’t the only thing that’s real, in which someone invents a form of VR sex that’s better than the old in-out. But Spielberg’s point is well-taken all the same, and so “Ready Player One” closes on a note as timely as it is timeless: put down your phones, rip off your headsets, leave your houses, explore new neighborhoods, meet new people — in short, keep the spirit of slutty summer in your hearts all year long.

Jackson Arn is the Forward’s contributing art critic.

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