By now you probably know that Ready Player One features cameos from a number of famous movie monsters, including the T. rex from Jurassic Park, whose appearance gives Steven Spielberg a chance to playfully pat himself on the back. He’s done stuff like this before: In the opening scene of 1941, a beautiful young woman arrives at the beach at dusk and jumps into the surf before the two-note Jaws score begins. She’s then “attacked” not by a great white shark but a surfacing submarine, which lifts her out of the water as she clings to the periscope—a pretty funny sight gag even if it’s a bit on the juvenile side.
1941 was, famously, a box office and critical flop (Pauline Kael’s contrarian praise notwithstanding) and the first setback of a precociously brilliant career. In Susan Lacy’s recent HBO documentary Spielberg, 1941 barely warrants two minutes of mention in between Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark. But I thought a lot about the 1979 film while watching Ready Player One, and not only because Alan Silvestri’s score deliberately quotes John Williams’s bombastic military march from the earlier film (one of hundreds of hidden nuggets in a film that is quite literally an Easter egg hunt). Both 1941 and Ready Player One (the titles even rhyme) are illustrations of what happens when their creator takes what has always been an implicitly witty sensibility and pushes it too far in the direction of capital-P “Playfulness.” He ends up with something that’s pretty much the opposite of fun.
What made Spielberg such a force in the 1970s was the way he ruthlessly renovated cheap old genres (the chase flick, the creature feature, the alien-invasion thriller) without winking at them or at the audience. With its array of subtle sight gags and Borscht Belt–style one-liners (“We’re going to need a bigger boat”), Jaws was funny, but not because it was unserious. Shortly after challenging Alfred Hitchcock for the most iconically soggy murder in all of cinema (what is the cold open of Jaws but Psycho’s shower scene transferred to open water?), Spielberg slaughtered a dog and a kid to show that he wasn’t fucking around and then conjured up the ghosts of World War II in Quint’s monologue about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, by far the scariest scene in a landmark of modern horror.
The story goes that after the elemental terror of Jaws and the celestial awe of Close Encounters (a movie mostly without jokes, and downright creepy in places before its blissed-out ending), Spielberg wanted to do something wild and wacky. He enlisted his up-and-coming pals Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, who’d made the sweet Beatlemania riff I Wanna Hold Your Hand, to write him a comedy. What they came up with was, like its predecessor, a mix of satire and nostalgia—a what-if story about post–Pearl Harbor paranoia in 1940s Los Angeles.
Because of Spielberg’s bankability, 1941 was budgeted as a blockbuster, tricked out with the most expensive special effects this side of Star Wars and cast with as many stars (including a raft of celebrity cameos) as possible. A shot of a car crashing through a Coca-Cola billboard referenced the similarly celeb-bloated 1963 comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and 1941 is basically a collection of references: not only Jaws but also It Happened One Night (a female character hitches a ride by hitching up her skirt), The Wizard of Oz (a man wakes up from a knockout punch whispering “There’s no place like home”), The Godfather (a Don Corleone look-alike can be seen eating spaghetti in an Italian restaurant), and a cameo by Toshiro Mifune as a Japanese submarine commander named “Akiro Mitamura” that evinces Spielberg’s fondness for Akira Kurosawa. In the film’s wittiest moment, a blowhard American general played by Robert Stack weeps in a cinema during a screening of Dumbo. The scene hinted that the square-jawed old B-movie veteran could do comedy; six months later, he appeared in Airplane! as Rex Kramer and the rest is history.
Airplane! is much funnier than 1941; it even opens with a better Jaws parody. Where Spielberg seemed to be working on the wrong scale—crafting a massive, epic in-joke—the ZAZ team kept things shabby, loose, and ridiculous, with bursts of precision when necessary, like an extended parody of the “Staying Alive” scene from Saturday Night Fever. Spielberg recovered quickly via the double shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. (substituting thrills and heart, respectively, for smart-alecky humor) and shortly thereafter made his crossover move into grown-up seriousness with The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. In the process, he ceded the field of Spielberg parody to his acolytes—not only Zemeckis, whose Romancing the Stone sent up Indiana Jones through Michael Douglas’s louche treasure seeker, but also Joe Dante, the shadow Spielberg, a filmmaker who balances id and insight with a consistency his mentor lacks.
For instance: Dante’s Piranha cannibalizes Jaws with low-budget ingenuity, offering up a school of rapacious little fish instead of one big rubber shark (the film was producer Roger Corman’s revenge against Spielberg for turning the B-movies he’d been churning out for decades into A-list events). Dante’s segment in The Twilight Zone movie (produced by Spielberg) illustrated the terror of a universe controlled by a TV-sated 10-year-old boy (who bore a striking resemblance to Elliott from E.T.), sounding a note of alarm as the New Hollywood gave way to the high-concept ’80s. And the key image in Dante’s Gremlins (also Spielberg produced) is of an E.T. doll being shoved off a shelf by a grotesque little critter who looks like the Extra-Terrestrial’s malformed cousin. The cautionary tale about a cuddly, cute designer item (the foreign import Gizmo) that turns destructive could be read as a metaphor for the Spielbergization of American cinema. It’s a critique expanded and perfected in the magnificent pop culture atomizer Gremlins 2 (which, among its many virtues, was one of the first movies to attack Donald Trump in the form of John Glover’s moronic capitalist overlord Daniel Clamp).
Dante’s best movie came out just before Spielberg’s worst: The only title that gets less play than 1941 in Lacy’s documentary is Hook, and for good reason. Like 1941 before it, Hook is playful in an exhausting, almost oppressive way, and marked the first time that its director fully appropriated a pre-existing mythology instead of mediating it through his own frame of reference. Close Encounters of the Third Kind evoked The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom restaged Gunga Din, but Hook was a literal sequel to Peter Pan, and its story of a middle-aged Peter trying to recapture his youthful spirit while acknowledging grown-up responsibilities spoke to its director’s own identity crisis (alternate title: This Is 40). Over-produced, stunt-cast (remember Julia Roberts in a pixie cut as Tinkerbell), and almost self-parodically sentimental, Hook fully sucked (yes, even Rufio). But even though its badness was entirely of a piece, it paradoxically inaugurated the ongoing period of “split Spielberg”—call it Even Stevens—that still defines his output. In 1993, Spielberg did Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, juxtaposing kiddie horror with historical atrocity; in 1997 came Amistad and The Lost World; in 2005, War of the Worlds and Munich, and so on.
The blockbuster/prestige-pic dichotomy speaks to the conflicting imperatives facing the most successful movie maker of all time. It’s a red pill/blue pill question: Should he use his gifts for escapism or confront reality head-on? Both The Post and Ready Player One (an Auteur Twofer even if they straddle the calendar) attempt to speak to the present moment, albeit in wildly different modes. Both films are simulations—the recreation of the Nixon era versus a fully realized futurist digital realm. Neither works as well as intended, but Ready Player One feels faker on a couple of levels, and not just because it’s a movie set largely in an online, game-playing realm that strategically whitewashes the toxic, misogynist unpleasantness of that milieu, recasting it as a mostly co-operative utopia (it would take a Fortnite to go into why this is so disingenuous but I like this exchange in The Hollywood Reporter as a start). Here, the geeky gamer who spends all of his time strapped into an updated Oculus Rift gets to kiss a girl in the end. Of all of Spielberg’s Pinocchio references, Wade Watts becoming a “real boy” via a makeout session with his formerly virtual, now flesh-and-blood girlfriend has got to be the laziest.
Where The Post represents an attempt to reckon with American history and politics (and how one shapes the other, and vice versa), Ready Player One stubbornly, even pathologically, refuses to say much of anything about the history or politics of pop culture. If the character of messianic game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance) is supposed to be Spielberg’s avatar, it’s a flimsy sketch rather than a self-portrait (I saw more of Spielberg in the aged dream-weaver of The BFG).
The sight of the T. rex wreaking havoc on a new generation of consumers isn’t half as funny or trenchant as the Gremlin shoving E.T. off the shelf (or even the shot of Jurassic Park memorabilia in Jurassic Park), and Ready Player One, like 1941, is less than the sum of its references, inviting grateful, uncritical recognition rather than reflection. Turns out that treating the movies entirely as a jungle gym brings out Peter Pan’s inner brat. He’s made a movie for lost boys.