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Can Spielberg Remember How to Have Fun

Issued: 2018-03-21

His serious period movies do well at the box office, but his recent would-be blockbusters have been disappointments. “Ready Player One” will be a major test.


UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — Steven Spielberg, 71, adjusted his trifocals as I asked the question, a bead of sweat descending from my temple.

We were sitting face to face in a cozy little conference room on the Universal Studios lot here. He had been fiddling with an unlit cigar (he just holds them these days) while talking about the euphoria that had greeted his new science-fiction epic, “Ready Player One,” at the South by Southwest Film Festival three days earlier. People were calling the big-budget movie a return to “Jurassic Park” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” glory.

“Oh, my God, what a night,” Mr. Spielberg said, beaming. “I felt like I was 10 years old again!”

But there was no way around the buzz-kill query: Had he set out to prove that he hadn’t lost his touch?


If people had left the “Ready Player One” premiere saying that the old Steven Spielberg magic had returned, that meant they believed that it had gone missing — that his last few “fun” movies, including “The BFG” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” hadn’t been so fun.

I envisioned plaster falling from the walls with a low rumble and a boulder rolling toward me, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-style.

Instead, Mr. Spielberg answered in a gentle, undefensive tone. “I’m really too busy, both in my private life and in my professional life, to have a lot of time to dwell on success or failure,” he said. “I’m always moving really fast, and I don’t look back a lot. That’s why I don’t sit down and look at my movies on a movie screen after I’ve made them. Sometimes it’s years before I will even dare look at a movie again, and sometimes I’ll shut it off after five minutes.” He looked out the window.

“I have this scary image, which haunts me, of Gloria Swanson sitting in her living room watching her glory days,” he continued, referencing “Sunset Boulevard.” “And I’ve always said to myself, ‘I’ll never catch myself reminiscing nostalgically.’”

Unless he is making a movie that reminisces nostalgically.

“Ready Player One” is an adaptation of the 2011 Ernest Cline novel, which overflows with references to pop culture of the 1980s — a movie era dominated by Mr. Spielberg, both as a director and as a producer (“Back to the Future,” “The Goonies,” “Poltergeist”). The title “Ready Player One” comes from the words that flashed on Atari arcade games after the drop of a quarter. The screenplay, written by Zak Penn and Mr. Cline, nods to John Hughes movies and incorporates Michael Jackson’s red “Thriller” outfit, Mechagodzilla and Chucky. Tunes by Twisted Sister, Van Halen and Joan Jett populate the tongue-in-cheek soundtrack.


In the film, which Warner Bros. will release March 29, the teenage Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, best known for the indie film “Mud”) lives in a filthy, severely overcrowded trailer park in Columbus, Ohio. The year is 2045, and most Americans have given up. (Upward mobility? No such thing.) People now spend all their time wearing virtual reality goggles and haptic gear, which allows them to explore a pretend 3-D world called the Oasis as if they were really there. The Oasis, created by an eccentric billionaire, is a wondrous place where you can be anything — another gender, another species — and the 1980s-loving Wade and his crush, Samantha Cook (played by Olivia Cooke, from “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”), race to solve a three-part treasure hunt before an evil corporation, in both worlds, gets there first.

Writing of Mr. Spielberg after the premiere, the IndieWire critic Eric Kohn tweeted, “In terms of pure spectacle, it’s the most astonishing thing he’s done.”

A preview of the film.

As a filmmaker, Mr. Spielberg has always seesawed between prestige and popcorn — serving up “Schindler’s List” and “Jurassic Park” in the same year, for instance, and moving directly from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” to “The Color Purple.”

But lately the results have been lopsided. Mr. Spielberg’s last three historical dramas (“The Post” last year, “Bridge of Spies” in 2015 and “Lincoln” in 2012) have been successes, receiving Oscar nominations for best picture and generating ample ticket sales. At the same time, his last three movies aimed at the multiplex masses have not lived up to expectations. The most recent, “The BFG,” a fantasy adapted from Roald Dahl’s book, was a box-office bust in 2016, collecting $55.5 million in North America. “The Adventures of Tintin,” based on the Belgian comics character and made with motion-capture animation, lost money for Paramount in 2011. “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was a ticket-selling machine in 2008, but fans generally hated the story; it came off as a cynical money grab for all involved.

That leaves “War of the Worlds” as the last Spielberg blockbuster that most people view as an all-around success, and it arrived in 2005 — another Hollywood era entirely.

“As he has grown older, he has become less interested in making audience thrill rides and more focused on experimenting,” said Jeanine Basinger, founder of Wesleyan University’s film studies program. “And not every artistic experiment works out. It would be unfair of us to expect otherwise.”

“That said,” she continued, “he has now given us several so-called ‘fun’ pictures in a row where something was missing. ‘The BFG’ was wonky and weirdly lifeless. ‘Tintin’ wasn’t terrible, but it was too fancy for the family audience. And that last ‘Indiana Jones’ was just no good. No. No. End of discussion.”

Mr. Spielberg isn’t ready to go that far. (Not even remotely.) But he agreed with Ms. Basinger’s thrill ride observation.


“In all my early films, from ‘Jaws’ to ‘Raiders’ to ‘E.T.’, I was telling the story from a seat in the theater — from the audience, for the audience — and I haven’t done that in a long time,” Mr. Spielberg said. “I haven’t really done that since ‘Jurassic Park,’ and that was in the ’90s.”

Why not?


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