Steven Spielberg’s new movie Ready Player One is laden with endless movie references, quotes and characters lifted wholesale from other films. But it’s not like when Family Guy does a particularly terrible episode and it’s nothing but clumsy references, or those terrible spoof films where someone dressed up as Napoleon Dynamite shows up and that’s meant to be as good as if there was an actual joke, or when that terrible friend everyone has that just quotes Alan Partridge and Ron Burgundy instead of being funny makes a party appalling. No, it’s not like that, because it’s Steven Spielberg so it’s better.
Obviously a movie where someone’ll crash the Back to the Future car into the Flintstones’ car, jump out and high-five Raiden from Mortal Kombat, down a Krustyburger then kick Data from Star Trek in the head (NB. This does not really happen in Ready Player One) is always going to be a legal nightmare. Clearances, permissions, rights issues, trademarks, issues with copyright in different territories.
Despite being the most famous director in the world and the man that invented the summer blockbuster (this is a really good book about that, incidentally, that seems to only cost a penny from Amazon now, not sure how), Steven Spielberg’s involvement didn’t just mean a green light and thumbs-up emoji from everyone who was approached.
At a press conference in LA, he revealed that his attempts to clear Star Wars characters for use in the film were denied. “We couldn’t get any Star Wars rights,” he said. “They wouldn’t give up the Star Wars rights.”
It would have been different if Ready Player One was made a few years ago, of course - Star Wars is the brainchild of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg’s BFF. They worked on Indiana Jones together, and it was even Spielberg that introduced Lucas to John Williams, leading to Star Wars’ iconic score. But a few years ago, Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney - the ‘they’ Spielberg is referring to above - which is where it presumably got complicated.
“Kristie [Macosko Krieger, Ready Player One producer and head of the licensing team] spent three years with all of the Warner Bros. legal people getting the rights to all of them,” said Spielberg. “And we couldn’t get all of them.” This is despite the presence in Ready Player One of actor Ben Mendelssohn, who literally built the Death Star in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
There were a few other characters that had to be dropped when translating the book to the big screen. In the book, a pivotal role is held by beloved Japanese superhero Ultraman:
In the film, however, due to issues with an ongoing legal case involving Ultraman’s ownership, the role is filled by The Iron Giant, conveniently made by the same studio, Warner Bros., as Ready Player One.
Ready Player One is released on 30 March.