Steven Spielberg breathes new life into ’80s homage ‘Ready Player One’

03.25.15 2 years ago

Zak Penn/Microsoft Studios

Steven Spielberg remains one of the most interesting big-name filmmakers working, if for no other reason than the breadth of his interests. I can't name many people who have directed more types of stories or who have been able to effortlessly work in more genres.

Look at the jump he's about to make. He's wrapping up work on “Bridge Of Spies,” the Cold War thriller starring Tom Hanks. I love the idea of the two of them working together on another look back at a decade they both consider defining. The idea that Spielberg's going straight from that into a bigscreen version of Roald Dahl's “The BFG” would be just plain weird if it were anyone else.

Today's news that Spielberg is signed to direct “Ready Player One” for Warner Bros. is only the latest twist in the long development process that has already taken place trying to bring Ernie Cline's novel to the screen. Before the book was published, it had already been optioned by Donald De Line and Dan Farah, who are still attached as producers. They've spent the last five years working with Eric Eason and then Zak Penn on drafts of the script. I've read at least two of those drafts, and it's been interesting to see just how much heavy lifting there is to take what Cline did on the page and try to find a film equivalent to it.

Part of the problem comes down to copyright. Ernie is an '80s kid, and there is a language that the book is written in that is contingent on a shared pop cultural background. There are so many dense references to other properties in the book that it's almost impossible to imagine how to make the film without including all of it.  Hiring Steven Spielberg to direct the film may have just made that possible for the first time. People forget that when “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” was made, we lived in a very different media world. IP had not become the densely mined fossil fuel of the industry the way it is now, and people weren't as protective of it or as ruthlessly commercial about it. In Zak Penn's script, they directly address the notion of licensing, with Aech designing custom nerd replicas of things like the Iron Giant, Star Wars, the “Close Encounters” mothership, and Marvel. I'm not sure how much Disney's going to want to loan out some of their most iconic brands, not when everything is as carefully negotiated as it is these days, but again… Spielberg is Spielberg. He has his own sense of gravity, and if anyone can bend reality, it's him.

One of the things I'm most interested in if Spielberg directs is how he handles the gaming. Spielberg has been playing video games since the '80s and is reportedly a real fan of the medium. In one of those weird coincidences, Zak Penn recently made a documentary about the search for the final resting place of the Atari 2600 cartridges for “E.T. – The Game,” and there's some vintage Spielberg footage in that documentary where we see Spielberg talking about the game in an interview done pre-release. That's the photo at the top of this story, and it cracks me up to see Spielberg and Penn and Cline (who is interviewed in Penn's film) all collide on a project that is built on a shared love of video games.

We haven't quite had that moment yet where video games made the successful jump to movies, but I would argue there are plenty of filmmakers working right now who have had their own aesthetic thinking shaped by gaming just as much as by movies. I think “The Matrix” series is the first successful new myth of the video game age, a fairy tale about how we live through our digital avatars, with Cameron also successfully tapping into that same idea with “Avatar.” With Spielberg directing “Ready Player One,” we're going to see someone who has spent the last 30 years looking at the state of the art of gaming and virtual reality technology making a film that is designed to drop you into a gaming experience. If anyone can make that work onscreen, I'd wager it's Spielberg, and Warner Bros. has to be excited about the possibilities.

When you look at the details of the story at Deadline, they've obviously been given some specific marching orders about what to emphasize, like the Magic Leap technology they reference. If you'd like to know what that is, check this out…

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… okay, that's crazy.

That is such a big weird jump forward, at least in theory, that whoever makes the first good use of that is going to win just because it's going to be so new. The fact that at least half of Deadline's article is about that means someone aggressively pushed that connection to Deadline. I know that Spielberg was a big fan of the experience he had on “The Adventures Of Tintin,” and when you look at that one long remarkable truck chase in the middle of that film, the potential for Spielberg working in motion-capture for the gaming sequences is terrifically exciting. No one thinks their way through an action scene like he does, and setting his camera free is thrilling.

I don't have any particular insight into this one. I assume Penn is going to keep working, but it is possible Spielberg will want his own writer. Penn has a good working relationship with Ernie Cline, who has to be feeling like a lottery winner today. He's literally asking one of the architects of the '80s to build the ultimate temple of worship of all things '80s, and it'll be fascinating to see how Spielberg interprets the love of his own work that is so deeply built into the project's DNA.

Hats off to Cline and to Warner, who has kept the pressure on to get this one right. If you're going to have someone become Willy Wonka for the childhood of every '80s kid, it couldn't be in safer hands.

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