How Ready Player One director Steven Spielberg made us fall in love with movies and then ruined them
There's no doubt Steven Spielberg is one of the most influential directors of our time. But is he one of the greatest?
The year is 2045 but the world of Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One is still obsessed with the 1980s. Disgruntled citizens don virtual reality headsets to enter a digital universe with one large, impactful Easter egg and several other tiny ones. It's like a nesting doll of pop culture paraphernalia and the movie will surely light up our nostalgia pleasure centres. The '80s have, after all, become our go-to place for nostalgia therapy with writers, directors and artists mining inspiration from its defining films and music.
And no filmmaker has had more impact on 80s pop culture than Spielberg.
Having directed such beloved classics like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and produced equally influential films like Poltergeist, Back to the Future and The Goonies, he became a household name. So, it is perhaps apt that a film, which is a pastiche of 80s references, is brought to the big screen by the decade's (arguably) most influential director. Based on Ernest Cline's novel Ready Player One, the film — which releases this Friday — was described in its early reviews as "classic Spielberg," "vintage Spielberg" and "Spielberg's most Spielbergian adventure."
But what does it all mean?
A kid riding a flying bicycle across the face of the moon...
With Jurassic Park's hangry velociraptors, Jaws' great white shark (and its simple yet terrifying two-note motif), E.T.'s chubby, lovable alien or Raiders of the Lost Ark's fedora-wearing, whip-wielding archaeologist, Spielberg made us all fall in love with movies as kids. The transformative power of his blockbusters cannot be understated for they embodied the joys of childhood.
In Spielberg's movies, there was always a sense of awe and amazement at the infinite expanse of universe and its inexplicable mysteries. They perfectly seemed to capture the emotions of children cornered by the institutions of the grown-up world. From E.T. to The BFG, his movies were empowering and helped us overcome the trauma caused by our bullies — whatever form or shape they took. The wonder, fear, excitement and enchantment in his movies, perhaps still, appeal to the child harbouring in all of us.
A teenager driving a DeLorean back to the future...
Of course, as you grow up with a better appreciation for history and the technical craft of filmmaking, you truly start to understand Spielberg's talent, especially with his two 90s showpieces — Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. Both films — set during World War II — leave you with unforgettable images of 20th century's darkest and most defining episode. Though both films are around three hours long, Spielberg proved he is one of the few filmmakers who can keep even audiences with short attention spans awake for longer-than-average durations.
Minority Report (2002) too was an engaging adaptation of the Philip K Dick short story with Spielberg expertly blending expressionist film noir with a prescient, cautionary tale about an Orwellian police state. While Minority Report spoke to the anti-establishment teen in us, films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the more recent The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn helped us embrace the geek within.
His work spanned genres from science fiction to fantasy to action-adventure to period drama. Along with Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan, he remains one of the rare directors whose name alone can still attract big audiences.
An adult watching "films" rather than "movies"...
However, when you revisit some of these movies you cherished as a kid, you realise there's a method and formula to his blockbuster success.
Camera slowly dollies up to an intimate close-up of the character's face as they look stupefied — eyes open, mouth agape — at something that catches their attention — be it a brontosaurus or an alien spaceship. This close-up reaction shot mirrors the audience's own anxiety and curiosity as they are left wondering what the character saw. Often, these moments are accompanied by the swelling music of John Williams, who always knows how to capture the scene's atmosphere and then enhance its dramatic potential.
This emotional manipulation worked for Spielberg until it became a trope. This has been one of the most persistent quibbles about Spielberg — that he settled and stopped taking risks as a filmmaker. While he was initially hailed as Stanley Kubrick's successor for his directorial talent, he is now a poor production line imitation of his former self.
Terry Gilliam, in a TCM interview, once made an interesting comparison between the two. "Spielberg and the success of most films in Hollywood these days, I think, is down to the fact that they’re comforting, they tie things up in nice little bows, gives you answers, even if the answers are stupid, they’re answers. Oh, you go home, you don’t have to worry about it," he said. "The Kubricks of this world, and the great filmmakers make you go home and think about it."
Throughout his career, Spielberg has eschewed layered, unflinching portraits of the troubles children face growing up for more gooey genre mash-up tales. After a while, you do grow tired of his usual thematic tics: a Peter Pan-like innocent child trapped in a hostile world, his daddy issues, a simplistic good guy-bad guy dichotomy, etc. Peter Biskind, in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, accuses Spielberg of “infantilising the audience” and “reconstituting the spectator as child, then overwhelming him and her with sound and spectacle, obliterating irony, aesthetic self-consciousness, and critical reflection.”
Spielberg has also been criticised for his unapologetically sentimental epilogues. Even his best films, including one about Holocaust, had a seemingly upbeat, happy ending. This need to be a people-pleaser has undermined his artistic credibility. With each repeat viewing, you realise even his best films have some serious flaws. Barring the unforgettable, grisly images of the Allied soldiers storming Omaha beach in Saving Private Ryan, the film's premise — that war is more about sacrifice, mercy and saving lives rather than needless killing — is absurdly unrealistic. Though the monochrome imagery of Schindler's List deepens the emotional impact of the story, there are times it feels more like an artistically showy exercise.
"I make movies for teenage boys. Oh, dear, what a crime."
By smashing box office records, terrifying audiences and deterring beach-goers, Jaws ushered in the modern summer blockbuster and forever changed the landscape of the movie industry. Hollywood's blockbuster-driven business model has turned movies into a dream factory, rather than a serious art form. Spielberg's love for ostentatious special effects has led to a new generation of directors who prefer spectacle over substance. He's the reason we have Michael Bay and the insufferable Transformers franchise. He's the reason we have Cowboys & Aliens. As Transformers star Shia LaBeouf himself crudely put, "He’s less a director than he is a f**king company."
In a panel discussion at the University of Southern California, Spielberg — and his aider and abettor George Lucas — spoke of an imminent "implosion" facing the movie industry. “You’re at the point right now where a studio would rather invest $250 million in one film for a real shot at the brass ring than make a whole bunch of really interesting, deeply personal — and even maybe historical — projects that may get lost in the shuffle because there’s only 24 hours,” he said, rather ludicrously.
One can’t help but feel that the now 71-year-old Spielberg is way past his prime. His recent films have veered between kitsch and heavy-handed Oscar bait dramas like War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies and The Post.
With Ready Player One, it’s good to see he's gone back to what he excels at: pure, escapist entertainment. But beyond the visual feast and dizzying pop-culture nostalgia, can Spielberg’s original directorial voice truly be heard?
There's no doubt Spielberg is one of the most influential directors of our time. It is impossible to discuss cinema of the last four decades without mentioning his unparalleled impact.
But is he one of the greatest filmmakers of our time? The jury's still out on that one.
Watch the trailer for Ready Player One below:
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