Can he still thrill?

Can he still thrill?

Can he still thrill?

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 cosy little conference room on the Universal Studios lot in California. He had been fiddling with an unlit cigar while talking about the euphoria that had greeted his new science-fiction film, 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," Spielberg said, beaming. "I felt like I was 10 years old again!"

Where's the magic?

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, 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.'"

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 Spielberg, both as a director and as a producer. 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 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, the teenage Wade Watts lives in a filthy, severely overcrowded trailer park in Columbus, Ohio. The year is 2045, and most Americans have given up. 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, and the 1980s-loving Wade and his crush, Samantha Cook, race to solve a three-part treasure hunt before an evil corporation, in both worlds, gets there first.

As a film-maker, 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. Spielberg's last three historical dramas 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, 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 programme. "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."

Mining for meaning

Spielberg isn't ready to go that far. But he agreed with 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 theatre - from the audience, for the audience - and I haven't done that in a long time," Spielberg said. "I haven't really done that since Jurassic Park, and that was in the 90s."

Why not? "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% 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."

In one moment in Ready Player One, a child tends a burning stove while her mother, wearing a VR headset nearby, is lost in another world. People become addicted to the Oasis, lying and stealing in real life to satisfy their virtual obsession. 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 VR 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.

Talking to me at his offices recently, Spielberg called Ready Player One the third-hardest movie of his career. Jaws still ranks as the most difficult, largely because there was so much nail-biting downtime waiting for the ocean and mechanical shark to cooperate, he said. The second hardest was Saving Private Ryan, with its dazzling, intricate depiction of the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach.

Perhaps reflecting the marketing challenges it faces, Ready Player One is Spielberg's first movie to arrive in the less-competitive spring since The Sugarland Express in 1974. Regardless of the outcome, Spielberg said that Ready Player One had a populist impact on him as a film-maker, 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."

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