In theory, I should be squarely within the target demographic for Ready Player One; I was born in the early ’80s, grew up on Spielberg movies and engaged heavily with pop culture throughout my youth. The nostalgia miners that seem to be green-lighting movies and TV shows these days should be making a fortune off of me. But the fact of the matter is, I’ve never been able to view past entertainments through the rose-colored glasses that seem to be de rigueur these days, I’ve grown too jaded to be impressed by overblown CG spectacle bearing no meaning, and I’ve hated Spielberg ever since I watched Amblin’ and realized that not only did the emperor have no clothes, he was also a hack.
That brings us to Spielberg’s magnum opus of style over substance, the adaptation of Ernest Cline’s best-selling novel Ready Player One. I haven’t read Cline’s book, so I don’t know if he ever addresses the fact that people in his dystopian 2047 obsessing over media from the ’80s would be equivalent of people today fawning over Dragnet and Gunsmoke — a phenomenon that, thankfully, does not exist. What I do know is that when you have a Pizza Hut product placement in the first two minutes of your film, you’ve got problems. I know that when Zak Penn is one of your screenwriters, you’ve got problems. And I know that when your 2 1/2-hour cartoon pandering to fanboys includes some Battletoads but leaves out Star Wars, you’ve got serious problems.
Yes, I know that Spielberg selectively omitted certain intellectual properties, most notably many of his own, but to what end? So he could namecheck John Hughes and Robert Zemeckis a few more times? So he could make a mockery of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining for 20 minutes instead of 10? I’ve always struggled to understand the strange relationship between Kubrick and Spielberg that led to the latter taking over at the helm of A.I., but watching him strip away everything that made The Shining such a masterpiece in a few short, derivative minutes, everything clicked: Both men saw in the other something they could never be. Kubrick was pathologically incapable of directing the potboiler pabulum that made Spielberg a household name, and Spielberg probably couldn’t aspire to directing Kubrick’s coffee order adequately.
Since we’re here, I guess I could talk about the movie. Approximately 80 percent of the film is computer-animated, and it’s every inch the ugly exercise in sensory overload that you might fear. The script is heavily laden with expository dialogue that does nothing to establish themes or atmosphere but makes great strides in reminding you that 30-year-old movies and video games did, in fact, exist. The story goes exactly where you’d expect but takes twice as long to get there. Mark Rylance gives the only thing remotely resembling a performance in the entire film. And through it all, Spielberg casts an inescapable pall of aggressive mediocrity that only serves to make me nostalgic for a time when I didn’t recognize what an exploitative filmmaker he actually is. My hatred for Ready Player One won’t derail it’s box-office success — in fact, it’s already his highest-grossing opening weekend in 10 years. But when you realize that the opening this one beat was that of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, you might be swayed to sympathize with my antipathy toward the man who took a decade to realize that replacing the guns in E.T. with walkie-talkies was a bad idea. If I can convince even one of you to declare “game over” on Spielberg’s shenanigans, then I’ve won. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language.
Now Playing at AMC River Hills Classic 10, Carolina Cinemark, Grail Moviehouse, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville, Strand of Waynesville.