If pop culture has a king, it's Steven Spielberg. As the director of such timelessly iconic movies as Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. and Jurassic Park, and the producer of countless other classics (including Back to the Future, Gremlins and The Goonies), Spielberg has arguably contributed more to the mainstream entertainment cannon than any other person.
It makes him uniquely qualified to direct Ready Player One, a new blockbuster that leans heavily into the pop culture nostalgia that currently permeates popular entertainment.
"Nostalgia's always been a very powerful thing," Spielberg tells TimeOut during an interview in Hollywood. "It's what we return to. Reminiscing is huge. I've reminisced all my life. I may be the biggest reminiscer of my family. I think nostalgia is very powerful, it brings people together to share a memory. And collective memory sharing is a comfort, especially if the world is not in a happy phase of its development."
Adapted from Ernest Cline's best-selling 2011 novel, Ready Player One takes place in a resource-depleted 2045, where most people escape the depressing real world by spending all their time in a massive virtual reality game known as the Oasis. In the Oasis, all your pop culture nostalgia dreams can come true: climb Mt. Everest with Batman, ride the motorbike from Akira or fly around in the DeLorean from Back to the Future.
While the book ran deep with references to Spielberg movies, most of those have been eliminated in the movie adaptation, upon the director's instruction.
"I realised that if I was going to direct this movie I couldn't make it a vanity mirror reflecting everything I contributed to the culture," explains Spielberg. "I can't do that. Or I'd be the wrong film-maker for it. But I also wanted control over it because I didn't want someone else coming in and using the movies I've made in their own version of Ready Player One."
The plot of the film concerns the search for a secret easter egg hidden in the Oasis by its now-dead creator, a reclusive Willy Wonka-esque figure named James Halliday, played by Oscar-winning Spielberg regular Mark Rylance.
Whoever can decipher Halliday's pop culture-laden clues and find the egg gains control of the Oasis, the biggest company on the planet, so the race is on between some young gamers (led by Tye Sheridan's Parzival and Olivia Cooke's Art3mis) and a soul-less corporation that intends to exploit the Oasis, personified by evil suit Nolan Sorrento, played by Aussie actor Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One, Bloodline).
Halliday is is presented as someone who channelled his childhood passions into culture-dominating entertainment. TimeOut suspects Spielberg can relate.
"Yeah he was my main guy," admits the director. "I always find a character in every movie I direct that I feel I'm more like than anybody else and I think I'm like, 80 per cent Halliday and 20 per cent Parzival. And as a result Halliday's character became more imperative to the justification of what he put into motion. Because he at some point had to take responsibility for what he had created. As John Hammond had to when he created Jurassic Park."
Disarmingly casual for someone of his standing, Spielberg is aware that the air changes when he enters a room, and does everything he can to deflate the impact of his presence, coming across as present, engaged and infectiously enthusiastic about cinema. He fiddles with a giant unlit cigar throughout our conversation.
"The 80s was a beautiful decade, it was a beautiful time," Spielberg says of the pop culture era Ready Player One is most concerned with. "It's a bit of a golden age because it wasn't a decade of global chaos and turmoil. Big significant things happened in the world - we had an actor as president at the time - but it was a decade where culture upstaged politics. Now politics is upstaging culture."
Ready Player One is about the need for - and the dangers of - escapism, which is something Spielberg has made a very successful career out of providing.
"I think escape is important," says the triple Oscar-winner. "We need the relief and release of escape, but we also [shouldn't] do it at the expense of fixing our social problems and fixing the world that we live in."
Who: Director Steven Spielberg
What: Ready Player One
When: In cinemas next Thursday