Steven Spielberg famously never went to film school, yet at the age of 27 he helmed perhaps the greatest horror film ever made: Jaws. His sophomore effort in the director’s chair created the modern summer blockbuster, changed the film industry forever, and kept people from swimming in the ocean.
These many years later, Spielberg’s glorious lack of formal filmic education continues to shine through in his adaptation of Ernest Cline’s debut YA novel, Ready Player One.
Adapting a novel into a movie is like taking an orange and squeezing out the juice. When done wrong, you end up with A Wrinkle In Time, exhibit ‘A’ in how to ruin a beloved classic. Steven Spielberg, on the other hand, knows how to squeeze out good juice. His take on Ready Player One is essentially a futuristic, virtual reality remake of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the original film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book, not the Tim Burton abomination), with parts of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and The Da Vinci Code thrown in for kicks.
Spielberg makes a number of deft directorial choices while transforming a novel soaked in nerdy game-boy obsessions into a mass appeal movie, but none is more important than deciding to revel in an orgasmic display of pop culture nostalgia. By broadening the nostalgic appeal of Ready Player One beyond the gamer community as presented in the novel, Spielberg avoids comparisons to Adam Sandler’s filmic Chernobyl, Pixels. More importantly, he simultaneously delivers a product that questions our crippling addiction to pop culture and the virtual world that is Internet today whilst also giving us the endorphin rush of remembering happy moments from our youth. For me, I practically got wood when Ready Player One referenced Buckaroo Banzai. Yes, I once loved The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension that much. (It helps the reference is thematically relevant. Ready Player One, like Buckaroo, explores alternate realities, universes in other dimensions, and the duality of one’s identity)
What’s astonishing about Ready Player One is that it was directed by a 71-year-old man who’s previous film, released just a few months earlier, was The Post, a dramatic period piece starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep and set in a newsroom. The dichotomy between these two movies couldn’t be more stark. But it’s made possible because long ago Spielberg freed himself from the dogma of institutional intellectualism and instead learned how to make movies from practical experience, not academic instruction. He was never corrupted by having to listen to bloviating professors, never burdened with the indoctrination of film school group think, that horrid condition where impressionable young minds are taught the ‘correct way’ to structure scripts, shoot scenes, direct actors, light sets, and think about cinema. The only thing film school doesn’t teach is the idea of playfulness and how to be entertaining. Rather, film school is designed to bludgeon creativity out of students.
The funniest comedians hone their craft by going on stage night after night and bombing, throwing out the jokes that don’t work and keeping the ones that do. Similarly, Spielberg’s directorial decisions are based on sixty years of experience, not something he ever learned in a classroom. He knows which jokes work and why. As a result, Spielberg still enjoys making movies and this shows. He intuitively understands how to make films fun.
For whatever the flaws of Ready Player One, the film is fun. It knows how to entertain. In fact, this is the overriding lesson of the movie, one that’s made explicitly clear near the Armageddon ending. The joy in any game — any movie — is in playing, not winning. All too often, though, movies lose this focus. They forget to have fun. (See anything directed by former USC wunderkid-turned-boremaster James Gray.) All too often, ‘serious’ directors forget how to be entertaining. Not so with Spielberg. That is part of the Spielberg magic. Even when he directs a film like Lincoln or Schindler’s List, he understands the core function of every movie is to connect and engage with the audience. Ready Player One may be light fare by comparison, but it shows that Spielberg is still at the top of his game, that he still loves movies and loves making them. By missing out on film school, Spielberg opened his mind a larger, realer world, even if it’s only make believe.
Years ago, I was driving the late, legendary producer Polly Platt back to the office one day. We started talking about Steven Spielberg. She mentioned how every time she saw him, there was always dirt under his fingernails. That image has stuck with me for decades: Spielberg as the perpetual little boy, always getting his hands dirty, having fun.