Ready Player One takes place in a dystopian future in which most of humanity is obsessed with playing in a MMO with life-like virtual reality. When the creator of the virtual universe dies, an event is triggered that promises the rights of the universe to whomever can find three hidden keys. A young man and his rag-tag team of friends must find a way to get the three keys before a greedy corporation tracks them down for itself.
Ready Player One and the Homage to Horror
I was late to the game with Ready Player One, but I was recently able to catch the 'member berries spectacle that is Spielberg's ode to the 80s, 90s and 2000s of pop culture nerd fandom. There are references across the spectrum of entertainment, promising that repeat viewings will unearth new easter eggs, homages and cameos. It's perhaps the most mindless of entertainment Spielberg has ever put his name to, but it still manages more substance than 90% of Michael Bay's content this side of 13 Hours.
While watching it, I couldn't help but appreciate all of the horror icon cameos and references, with the pinnacle moment being a full scene of the film devoted to Kubrik's The Shining, pushing the boundaries of what's allowed in a PG-13 film by taking the "it's just a video game" excuse to the max. And I loved the movie for that. It flooded in memories of where Spielberg started and how his career was sparked by horror. And then reminded me of so many other directors that have had a similar start to their careers. And I want to talk about them.
Despite the fact we did a breakdown of this on our weekly podcast, I wanted to delve further into the idea that movie patrons owe the horror genre for a lot of the non-horror movies they love and respect. The list is quite long and full of respectable names: Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Sam Raimi, Ridley Scott, Peter Jackson, Danny Boyle, and, love him or hate him, Zac Snyder. And plenty of up-and-coming directors have started in horror as well and shown a great deal of promise or already fulfilled that promise, like Jordan Peele, Jennifer Kent and Jeremy Saulnier.
Spielberg got his big break with Jaws, which is one of the most effective horror movies of all time disguised as one of the first blockbusters. And the injection of his ability to create unsettling and disturbing moments can be seen within his other gems like Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, War of the Worlds and the Indiana Jones movies.
James Cameron started with Piranha II: The Spawning before getting into horror-laced action films The Terminator and Aliens. He then went on to make two of the highest grossing films of all time, Titanic and Avatar.
Sam Raimi got his start with the Evil Dead franchise, which eventually led to his very successful Spider-Man trilogy, with still one of the best comic book sequels in Spider-Man 2. And that film featured a particular scene with Doc Ock in a hospital that paid its respects to Raimi's campy, yet effective style of filmmaking.
Ridley Scott went from claustrophobic horror standard Alien to dark sci-fi action Blade Runner to historical-fiction epic Gladiator, showing an expanse of talent in nearly every genre along the way. But the roots of his horror can be seen in the details of nearly every one of his films.
Peter Jackson is the director of one of the most cartoonishly gruesome and disgusting films of all time in Dead Alive and even a smaller film before that in Bad Taste. Yet he went on to create the beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy. But, if you have the stomach for it, go back and watch Dead Alive and follow it up with Lord of the Rings. You'll catch his morbid humor and eye for grotesque violence even in his far more family-friendly fantasy epic.
Danny Boyle started out with Trainspotting and The Beach, but soon after did 28 Days Later, which led to one of my favorite sci-fi films in Sunshine. Most outside the genre of horror will remember him for 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire. The guy has a knack for stretching smaller budgets to the extreme and getting every cent of value out of them, which is often a quality in the best horror films of all time.
Zac Snyder may be generally panned of late, but the guy has an eye for fun and effective visuals. His first feature film was the Dawn of the Dead remake, which has developed a cult following of its own. He followed that up with movies like 300,Watchmen and Sucker Punch, which are all visually stunning despite some lackluster story and script.
So that quick breakdown of filmographies is all just evidence of the powerful vehicle horror can be to launch great director careers and create tension and drama in film. And it's not an old or dying trend. Peele, Kent and Saulnier are proving it is still an effective route for reaching directorial stardom. While Peele (Get Out) is staying at home in horror (Us, Candyman remake), he bends the limits of horror, comedy and drama and uses it to tackle tough subject matter like the race issues and tension our country is facing. Kent (The Babadook) is branching out slightly into a dark thriller and Saulnier has developed a strong filmography of dark indie thrillers and dramas since his start with the horror comedy Murder Party.
Horror is often the opportunity to see an up-and-coming director get his or her big break. It's an easy genre to jump into because the budgets are generally low and the plot structure can build itself if the creativity in the script is lacking. We, as horror fans, often get the first look at the promise of a new director, and because of that we often get the best, raw look at their talent. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't appreciate good film in horror, because those skeptics have seen plenty themselves, they just don't know it.