By Anthony Breznican
March 22, 2018 at 01:00 PM EDT
  • Movie

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Steven Spielberg is playing catch me if you can with his past.

Before setting off to make a movie from Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One, a futuristic tale of a treasure hunt through a virtual-reality universe that’s heavy on ’80s geek culture, the filmmaker who defined that decade pledged to leave his own movies out of the picture.

There was one exception: He allowed the hero to drive the time-traveling DeLorean from Back to the Future, which Spielberg executive-produced. Beyond that, the director didn’t want the new movie to become a series of shout-outs to his older ones.

His crew vowed otherwise.

Thus began a covert campaign to sneak Spielbergia into the background of Ready Player One, often by visually referencing movies he produced rather than directed. Graffiti on one wall of the dystopian real-world set included the grinning green jaws of a fiend from Gremlins. Spielberg killed it.

A diner on one street during a chase was a wink to the villainous bank-robbing brothers from The Goonies. “We had a sly Fratelli’s Diner, but we got caught,” production designer Adam Stockhausen says. “He nixed it.”

Credit: Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.

Even Schindler’s List got a nod. Ready Player One’s orphaned hero Wade Watts (The Tree of Life’s Tye Sheridan) lives in the Stacks, a slum of old trailers welded together Jenga-style. During a tour of his apartment, EW spotted a copy of Thomas Keneally’s 1982 book on a shelf. The paperback had the book’s original title, Schindler’s Ark.

Stockhausen said nothing when it was pointed out. He only raised a finger to his lips and waved his hand: Don’t tell the boss.

More than a year and a half later, with Ready Player One’s March 29 debut nearing, Spielberg acknowledges that what he tried to stop during principal photography managed to sneak in via the postproduction phase, particularly when the film ventures into the pop-culture-crowded CG realm of the virtual-reality OASIS.

“I think a lot of the digital artists were trying to get some of their favorite ’80s cultural references in there, you know?” Spielberg says. “And having seen every shot 30 times as we go through all the different steps from pre-viz to animatic to final, I started noticing little things. They snuck a gremlin in.”

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

He let them have that one. “I said, ‘Well, I guess it’s too late to take that guy out.’ So he survived the cut.” In the epic final battle, keep your eyes open to spot the little monster that hates bright light.

A movie and games fanatic himself, Spielberg was far more eager to showcase the work of others. “I didn’t corner the ’80s market,” he says. “There’s plenty to go around.”

As much as Ready Player One relishes a geek obsession with yesteryear, it actually jiu-jitsus nostalgia to craft a cautionary tale about glorifying your past while your future disappears. “Escape has its pleasurable and medicinal place, but total escape should not be a destination,” Spielberg says.

That fact was somewhat obscured by trailers that tried to hook fans by highlighting the Iron Giant, Freddy Krueger, Duke Nukem, Stephen King’s Christine, the A-Team van, and other fan-fave iconography. Instead, a backlash began to mount: Was Ready Player One more like Name-Dropping: The Motion Picture? Those concerns were largely dispelled by a rapturous screening at the SXSW festival in mid-March, which ended with a standing ovation in the theater and the kind of rare tweetstorm that showers praise instead of scorn.

“The movie isn’t really about nostalgia,” Spielberg tells EW. “Nostalgia is only the window dressing — out your side windows, but the movie takes place out your windshield. It’s a race. It’s a competition for control of the OASIS.”

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

In the year 2045, Earth is a mess. It’s polluted. It’s impoverished. The only getaway from these doldrums is to pull on your haptic body gear and visor, and relive the glory days amid artificial intelligence characters in a digital world where you can be anyone and surround yourself with anything.

The OASIS is the brainchild of billionaire James Halliday (Bridge of Spies Oscar winner Mark Rylance), who was a cross between Steve Jobs and Willy Wonka. Emphasis on was. Upon his death, he released a message: Solve a series of intricate geek puzzles to collect three keys, and you will claim both his vast fortune and ownership of the OASIS.

Wade Watts, operating in the OASIS under the name Parzival, is on the hunt for this holy grail. So is most of the rest of the planet. He’s best friends with Aech (The Chi creator and Master of None writer-performer Lena Waithe), who appears in the form of an orc-like male colossus and runs a garage where damaged digital vehicles can be repaired for the right cryptocurrency price.

“[Aech] is sort of like Mr. T meets Michael Clarke Duncan meets Ice Cube meets Rambo,” Waithe says. “There’s so many machismo characters that you got to meld it down and create it into one character. There’s a little Terminator in there as well.”

Waithe, a pioneering LGBTQ artist, says Aech is symbolic of people who wish to live an identity that’s different from the one they’re born into. “She’s pretending to be something she isn’t, but in that sense it’s still really her personality,” Waithe says. “She had to have that swagger, that confidence. That’s a privilege that maybe she doesn’t have in the real world.”

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

But there’s always a dark side. For some, the OASIS is a place where they obsessively pose and front, rather than unlock their true heart and soul. “I think it points a finger at this image we feel we have to live up to or strive to be,” Sheridan says. “I think a lot of people, especially a lot of kids right now, are struggling with being themselves and embracing that, embracing who they actually are and coming face-to-face with what that means.”

In a sense, he and Waithe are talking about the same thing: The OASIS can be a place to find yourself, or it can be a place to hide from yourself. For Sheridan, the message is, “People will love you for who you are. Although it may take a while, you’ll find those friends.”

During their quest, Parzival and Aech become allies with Art3mis, an equally clever pop-culture savant (played by Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’s Olivia Cooke) who spirits around the OASIS on the crimson motorbike from the Japanese anime classic Akira. They’re joined by two other Gunters (a term for “egg hunters,” as in Easter eggs): Daito (Win Morisaki, singer in the Japanese pop band PrizmaX), who appears in the guise of a samurai warrior, and the fearsome ninja Sho (14-year-old newcomer Philip Zhao).

Credit: Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.

As they get closer to solving the clues that will lead them to inherit the OASIS, they become known to everyone as the High Five. But to the giant tech conglomerate IOI, they are Public Enemy No. 1.

There’s something evil about IOI. It’s headed by Nolan Sorrento (Rogue One’s Ben Mendelsohn), who’s leading a massive operation of researchers trying to solve the puzzle and take control of the OASIS. It’s a cash grab. Since people are addicted to this freeware, IOI would like to restrict access and start charging a premium — but given the vast income disparity, that means only the wealthy may be able to visit this paradise built of ones, zeros, and imagination.

Credit: Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.

Sorrento has a deeper philosophy at work. He blames the preoccupation with the OASIS for creating the lost world he has to inhabit in real life. “They want to spend all their time going dink-donk-dink-dink,” Mendelsohn says, doing a grown-up’s version of videogame sound effects. Sorrento’s goal: “Monetize it. And get these young people working!”

To him, the OASIS may be an escape to nowhere, but to the High Five, it’s a way of becoming whatever they dream they can be. “It’s about idealists versus corporate greed,” Spielberg says.

In the behind-the-scenes battle playing out — the duel between Spielberg and his Easter-egg-hiding crew — the director seems to have come out on top. Apart from the gremlin in the battle scene, he has eliminated their covert homages to his filmography, even Schindler’s Ark.

It goes by fast in the finished movie, but a glimpse of that shelf in the Stacks does not appear to include the book.

If you’re going to hide an ark, don’t be surprised if Spielberg, of all people, manages to find it.

And now, EW’s own Easter egg hunt: There are 11 Spielberg titles embedded in this story, some more hidden than others. (The obvious lead sentence is a freebie.) A few of the more simple ones are actually the hardest to see. Tweet @Breznican when you think you’ve found them all.

Credit: Courtesy of BLT Communications/Warner Bros. Pictures

Ready Player One

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Steven Spielberg