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.”
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.”
“Because I’m older,” he said, with a laugh. “Now I feel a deeper responsibility to tell stories that have some kind of social meaning.” He added: “If I have a choice between a movie that is 100 percent for the audience and a movie that says something about the past — that resonates for me or elevates a conversation that might have been forgotten, like with ‘Munich’ — I will always choose history over popular culture. Even with all the popcorn in a film like ‘Ready Player One,’ it does still have social meaning.”
Acceptance of oneself and others is a big theme in “Ready Player One.” Underpinning the action are classic Spielberg motifs (parental absence, the kids are smarter than the adults). But the movie also functions as a cautionary tale about virtual reality, a technology that continues to move into the mainstream, as tech companies introduce more affordably priced headsets, start-ups like Dreamscape Immersive (in which Mr. Spielberg is an investor) bring walk-through virtual-reality experiences to movie theaters, and Hollywood studios figure out how to capitalize on the medium.
“I was really interested in the technology that allows this alternate universe to exist — headgear, haptic response gloves, boots, full-body suits — because I really believe it’s going to be the superdrug of the future,” Mr. Spielberg said.
In one moment in “Ready Player One,” a child tends a burning stove while her mother, wearing a V.R. headset nearby, is lost in another world. People become addicted to the Oasis, lying and stealing in real life to satisfy their virtual obsession. Mr. Spielberg said that with the next generation, “after five minutes of conversation, there is 20 minutes of prayer.”
“And the prayer is into iPhones and Samsung devices and Galaxies and iPads,” he said.
“Ready Player One” may include warnings about V.R. addiction, but the movie simultaneously functions as the biggest ad yet for the technology. If the visually spectacular Oasis doesn’t make everyday folks want to buy a pair of virtual-reality goggles, perhaps nothing will.
Describing what happens inside the Oasis is difficult without resorting to spoilers. But one scene that Warner has used in its marketing campaign depicts Wade — or at least Parzival, his avatar — racing a DeLorean through Manhattan. The cityscape rearranges itself as he progresses. King Kong wreaks havoc. Streets suddenly turn into arching Hot Wheels tracks.
“It was the most ambitious project that I.L.M. has ever taken on,” said Roger Guyett, a visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic, which worked with Mr. Spielberg and the Oscar-winning production designer Adam Stockhausen (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) to bring the Oasis to life.
“Ready Player One,” which cost an estimated $150 million to $175 million to make, came to Mr. Spielberg by way of Donald De Line, a Warner-based producer who bought the movie rights in 2010 before Mr. Cline’s book was even published. After spending about five years developing the screenplay, Mr. De Line sent the book and script to Mr. Spielberg and crossed his fingers.
“He’s always going to be your dream director for a movie like this,” Mr. De Line said. “But, realistically, what are the odds that you’re actually going to get him?”
Indeed, Mr. Spielberg’s godlike status in Hollywood has been unaffected by the lackluster response to his recent fantasy films. He is busier than ever, with a docket that includes a fifth Indiana Jones movie and a remake of “West Side Story,” among other projects.
To Mr. De Line’s surprise and delight, Mr. Spielberg cottoned to “Ready Player One,” in part because of the juxtaposition of the two worlds. It would also be an enormous challenge. In some ways, “Ready Player One” would require him to make two movies at once: The Oasis, made with motion-capture and virtual-reality equipment, some developed specifically for Mr. Spielberg, comprises about 50 percent of the finished film. The rest of “Ready Player One” takes place in dystopian Ohio.
During an appearance at the Comic-Con International fan convention last summer, Mr. Spielberg joked, “I read the book, and I said, ‘They’re going to need a younger director for this.’”
Last week, talking to me at his offices, Mr. Spielberg called “Ready Player One” the third-hardest movie of his career. “Jaws” (1975) still ranks as the most difficult, largely because there was so much nail-biting down time waiting for the ocean and mechanical shark to cooperate, he said. The second hardest was “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), with its dazzling, intricate depiction of the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach.
It is impossible to know how a broad audience will react to “Ready Player One,” which was co-financed by Village Roadshow (“Mad Max: Fury Road”). The raucous premiere bodes well, but it was also held at the friendly, fanboy-heavy South by Southwest. Perhaps reflecting the marketing challenges it faces — a male-heavy cast with no household names — “Ready Player One” is Mr. Spielberg’s first movie to arrive in the less-competitive spring since “The Sugarland Express” in 1974.
Regardless of the outcome, Mr. Spielberg said that “Ready Player One” had a populist impact on him as a filmmaker, making him want to make more thrill-ride movies again.
“The muscle memory of making those pictures,” he said, “came back in my experience of directing ‘Ready Player One’ and reminded me about how much fun it was, when I was a younger director.”