Steven Spielberg wants us to stop being distracted, as he gives us Ready Player One, a movie filled with distractions

Steven Spielberg wants it known that E.T. does not appear in Ready Player One, his latest whizz-bang blockbuster.

Hold on, that’s not quite right. Spielberg would prefer we discover for ourselves that the stranded extraterrestrial, his most famous cinematic creation, isn’t among the cavalcade of pop-culture references in this most meta of movies.

But the indomitable Hollywood director/producer really wants us to pay attention to the story, so he’ll compromise.

“The thing of it is, I don’t want to tell you whether or not E.T.’s in there, but I will, because I don’t want the audience forgetting the story and looking for E.T.,” Spielberg says from Los Angeles.

“No, E.T. does not make it into Ready Player One. So, you can actually watch the movie and stop looking for E.T.!”

Chances are moviegoers will be too busy aiming their eyeballs at all the other pop-cult call-outs in this Willy Wonka-goes-sci-fi adventure to worry about playing Where’s Waldo? with a famous space alien. Innumerable references are made to old video games, songs, movies, TV shows and cars — everything from the original Batmobile to Back to the Future’s DeLorean. Most of these shout-outs come from the 1980s, as per Ernest Cline’s bestselling source novel.

One of Spielberg’s few self-references in the Ready Player One movie, opening March 29 in theatres worldwide, is the rampaging T. Rex from Jurassic Park. It chases youthful underdog Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), his love pursuit Samantha (Olivia Cooke) and their fellow gamer avatars inside the Oasis, the film’s virtual-reality realm of a future world gone overboard.

Spielberg could justifiably have referenced any number of memorable images from his nearly half-century of feature filmmaking, but he decided early on in the three-year process of making Ready Player One that he wouldn’t do that.

“I realized that I couldn’t direct a movie if I was going to be creating my own best-hits album. That would be up to another filmmaker to maybe honour me that way, so I had to take most of me out of the movie. There are some of my movies still in there, like Back to the Future, which I produced, and Jurassic Park … and there are so many cultural iconic references that others created throughout the late ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s that I don’t miss me so much in this film.”

If it seems as if Spielberg is oddly concerned about distractions in a film that’s jam-packed with them, well, he is. At the age of 71, the grey-bearded cinema godfather still has the urge to create and to be engaged with the world, despite having directed dozens of films, raised seven children, won three Oscars and earned several billion dollars.

He’s worried that people are becoming too engaged with the online world to be fully conversant with the real one. This message is baked into Ready Player One’s narrative, even as the film whisks viewers away on a thrill ride quest for three hidden keys, left by Oasis creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance), that will open a hidden “Easter Egg” laden with treasure.

“People have been desperately seeking escape from the very beginning of conscious time,” Spielberg says. “But now, today, we have almost too many opportunities to escape from reality based on technology. This movie is a grand entertainment and it’s certainly supposed to be a roller-coaster ride through the future of virtual reality. But by the same token, it’s a cautionary tale about how too much of anything is too much.”

This is the second film he’s made in the past year, and the second one in which he’s had something urgent to say, in his own Spielbergian way.

The other film is The Post, his Oscar-nominated docudrama about journalistic freedoms. Starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, it’s set in Washington, D.C., during the press-averse Nixon Administration of 1971. But it very much resonates with the truth-averse Trump Administration that currently rules stateside.

“It was certainly an active year for me. It was a year where I was pulled in two different directions, but I thought they were both of equal importance. The Post was an unscheduled movie that just came to me as an opportunity to get into the national conversation (about) how freedom of the press is being treated today and how it was treated then — but much worse today.

“The other film had a different kind of urgency. The Post is a film that I shot sitting behind the camera; Ready Player One is a film that I directed sitting in the audience with the people it was intended for.”

He’s serious about wanting to be one with the audience. Like many Hollywood denizens, Spielberg is concerned about the increasing shift away from traditional theatrical releases to the online rollouts offered by Netflix and other streaming services.

“I keep making movies for theatres … and Netflix (shows) are not movies, they’re television. I don’t really consider a film released on Netflix and then immediately at the same time and only for a week released in theatres to be a movie. I find them to be either a miniseries or television movies, but not movie movies.

“I just believe that movies belong in theatres and I think we need to have this experience of watching movies in the company of strangers; and the bigger the screen and the better the sound, the better the experience. So I’m a huge proponent for keeping movie-going alive.”

Does Spielberg think he and other liked-minded moviemakers can preserve the theatrical experience indefinitely?

“We have to if we love movies,” he asserts.

“We have to respect the public venues. People laugh a lot harder in the company of strangers than they do when they’re just sitting around with their friends and family watching something on a 45-inch screen.”

This is not to suggest that Spielberg is anti-progress. He’s not against technological change per se and he does foresee a day when virtual reality will be a big part of our lives, although perhaps not as much as it is for the digital kids of Ready Player One.

“(VR) is getting off to a slow start, but I think it’s inevitable that social networking will eventually be all around us, visually all around us. I think this is the next big step in building a digital virtual community the way James Halliday wanted to build his Oasis.”

Spielberg is also on side with the industry shakeup represented by the “inclusion rider” called for by Best Actress winner Frances McDormand in her March 4 Oscar acceptance speech. An inclusion rider requires studios and filmmakers to fulfil certain quotas of diversity among a film’s cast and crew.

“Hey, you know, all power to those who are behind it,” Spielberg says of the inclusion rider. “I think it should go without saying and I think it’s a muscle we should have developed decades ago, but it’s a new muscle that we’re flexing for the first time now … it should be the unspoken norm, not the exception.”

He takes pride in the fact that Ready Player One has a diverse cast, with key players that include African-American Lena Waithe, and actors of Asian descent Win Morisaki and young newcomer Philip Zhao.

“The casting in this movie was always intended to be very diverse,” Spielberg says. “And also not just diverse in terms of colour and culture and nationality, but very diverse in terms of gender. Because I think the women carry the torch over the finish line in a dead heat with the men.”

Another big appeal to Spielberg of making a movie out of Ready Player One was that even though the story is set in the year 2045, it’s grounded in 1980s culture. He has a lot of happy memories about that decade, which some have dubbed “the Spielberg decade”: besides E.T., the era also birthed the Indiana Jones franchise that Spielberg plans to return to next year, for the fifth time.

“Oh, yeah!” he says of Ready Player One’s 1980s obsessions.

“When I read in the book that everybody was listening to music and dressing in the style of the ’80s, and going back and looking at all the movies and television shows of the ’80s, it was preaching to the converted as far as I was concerned.

“The ’80s were a decade of tremendous personal meaning and certainly personal growth, for me both as a filmmaker and as the decade gave birth to Amblin Entertainment, my first movie company. And it’s also a decade that was relatively at peace with itself and with the world. It was a decade where under Reagan we had a pretty robust economy, and it was also at a time when a lot of very entertainment-based movies got made that audiences warmed to.”

Spielberg had more fun making Ready Player One than he’s had in years. It shows on the screen.

“I felt like I was 25 years old making this movie, although when I got home every night from shooting and I walked up the stairs, I probably felt 10 years older than I actually was! But this brought out the kid in me.”

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