Soon to be trending, again: The Temptations’ 1971 hit “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),” one of the most wistful love songs of its era. It’s a reverie about falling in love at first sight and fast-forwarding through the amazing life the two of you could have together–if only it could be real. The singers run through an intoxicating set of romantic possibilities, eventually settling on a sobering verdict: “It was just my imagination, running away with me.”
The human longing the Temptations sang about predates 1971–not to mention 2018–by thousands of years. But the song finds new life in Steven Spielberg’s ambitious, sweet-spirited Ready Player One. It’s a futuristic adventure-romance about Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teenager stuck in depressed and depressing 2045 Columbus, Ohio, who lives the life of his dreams in a virtual-reality playground known as the OASIS. There, he’s not a perpetually put-upon kid, one who was orphaned at a young age and packed off to live with relatives; in the OASIS, he becomes the alter ego he’s created for himself, a heroic, blue-eyed model of James Dean coolness named Parzival, so electric with virtual life that even his skin seems to be traced with a network of living jewels. The movie’s action shifts between the stylized bleak reality of Wade’s world and the glistening, polychrome fantasy universe–created with CGI–in which, just by donning a pair of goggles, Wade becomes a swain who’s brave and groovy in all the ways he feels, in real life, he is not.
Wade/Parzival has friends in this otherworld, people whom he doesn’t know in real life, like the wisecracking warrior Aech (Lena Waithe). And he falls in love there too, with a girl so cool she’s even out of Parzival’s league, let alone Wade’s: Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) is a quick-witted minx with a punky red shag haircut. When Parzival finally gets up the nerve to have a real conversation with her, it’s the Temptations you hear deep in the background, their zephyr-like harmonies serving as both benediction and warning: breathe too hard, and even this imaginary reality might shatter.
The song may be old, but Spielberg’s use of it is modern. In his hands, Ready Player One, based on Ernest Cline’s popular 2011 gamer-fantasy novel, is a riff on both the glories and the limits of nostalgia–and it comes bound with the bittersweet acknowledgment that one man’s cherished cultural nostalgia is likely to be a much younger man’s casual Google search. Spielberg is one of Hollywood’s consummate craftsmen and the ultimate genre polymath. In the course of a career spanning close to 50 years, he made a fake shark seem terrifyingly real, rendered a hall-of-Presidents figure as a flesh-and-blood being and pondered the possibility of friendly visitors from other galaxies. And even if some of his most well-loved movies–like the Indiana Jones pictures–riff on the pop culture of eras past, he’s not so much a peddler of nostalgia as the kind of guy who makes movies that, in the years ahead, inspire nostalgia themselves. A generation of kids has already grown up with the tender and inventive child’s fantasy E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which Spielberg made in 1982. Now, even most millennials are probably too young to feel sentimental yearning for it.
So if there’s anyone qualified to riff on nostalgia, it’s Spielberg. “Nostalgia does not have eternal life,” the director tells me. “I use nostalgia when I’m in a bad situation, when I’m feeling stressed, or when the world is an ugly place to read about or to watch on television. I use nostalgia to escape. But my own kids are not nostalgic in the same way. They’re nostalgic if something is trending. And then they’ll go back and look it up and learn about something that happened a long time ago.” He’s realistic, in a cheerful way, about the fate of older folks’ treasured cultural totems: “Social media is keeping people pretty much focused on the present,” he says. “Social media may be the beta blocker to nostalgia.”
Like its source material, Ready Player One–adapted by Cline and Zak Penn–is packed with cultural references from the 20th century, and from the 1980s in particular. King Kong, the climactic dance sequence of Saturday Night Fever, Van Halen’s “Jump,” the Iron Giant: if you’ve watched a movie or even just sifted through Spotify anytime in the past 90 years, you’re sure to recognize something. But you don’t have to get all, or even any, of the references to enjoy the movie. Spielberg purposely constructed Ready Player One so that “the story is straight ahead out your front windshield, and the nostalgia, if you care to glance at it, is out the right and the left windows of this vehicle we’ve put you in, the one that’s racing you to the finish line,” he says. “The nostalgia is there if it has some value for you, but nostalgia is not essential in understanding the story we’re telling.”
In recent years the word storytelling has become the kind of stock term you need to put air quotes around, part of the lingo of podcasters, performance artists and tattooed-and-bearded marketing guys alike. But for Spielberg, the idea of telling a great story means something much more primal, and it’s bound tight with conveying visual information in the clearest possible way. Ready Player One is a vision of a possible dystopian future, but one that comes with its own means of escape via technology. The OASIS began as a noble experiment–its inventor is a reclusive, soft-spoken sweetheart-slash-genius, James Halliday (played, with incandescent guilelessness, by Mark Rylance)–but it has since become corrupted by corporate greed, embodied by the movie’s biggest villain, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). He’s a symbol of the way Big Business can contaminate ideas that begin with the best intentions.
The plot of Ready Player One involves dozens of crisscrossing threads, not to mention two visually disparate worlds. But Spielberg keeps everything moving smoothly, particularly the action scenes–they’re rendered with the kind of clear visual organization and precision that so many younger filmmakers, raised on the sloppier language of fast, jumbled cutting, haven’t bothered to master. In one of the grandest sequences, a drag race that’s like a dream reimagining of the one in Rebel Without a Cause (set in a splendid dream version of New York), Spielberg never leaves any doubt as to which car is coming from where. He takes great care in drawing a clear line telling the audience, visually, where the race starts and where it ends. “In all of my movies where there are action set pieces, the last thing I want the audience to do is get lost,” Spielberg says. “For me it’s essential that the audience is clear about who’s chasing and who’s being chased. Up from down, left from right. When the audience doesn’t have to worry about geography, it releases them to get involved in what the action is supposed to be telling us.” And that, for Spielberg, is key, a position he defends with a kind of gentle ruthlessness. “Storytelling is the most important aspect of anything I’ve ever done. It’s how the story is told–that’s all I’ve really focused on. If something doesn’t tell a story or if it’s confusing, I either don’t shoot it or I cut it out.”
Spielberg loves technology, and he loves using new techniques to tell stories. But he’s also wedded to the basics of classic filmmaking. He’ll use CGI wherever it’s needed–and it was needed a lot in a movie like Ready Player One–but generally speaking, if he has a choice between using a real set and a painted one that means “all the actors have to do is stand in front of a blue screen,” his preference is clear. “I love using real sets,” he says. “Half this movie is using real sets.”
In the end, as dazzling as the OASIS is, Spielberg knows which world he prefers. “There’s really no substitute for being in the world we were born into,” he says. But who doesn’t yearn for occasional escape from our grim daily battles, or even just from the headlines? The OASIS, as envisaged first by Cline and now by Spielberg–a place where the color of a person’s skin, or some strict definition of gender, age or wealth, isn’t the first thing you notice about them–is a model of the utopian imagination. Nostalgia has its uses. But why wish for a lost era, when you could instead be wishing a new one into being?
This appears in the April 09, 2018 issue of TIME.