The Best Scene in 'Ready Player One' Wasn't Even in the Original Script
This post contains major spoilers for a scene in Ready Player One.
If you've heard anything about Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg's spectacle-filled science-fiction mash-up, it's that the movie is packed with references to other pop culture artifacts. Like its bestselling source material by novelist Ernest Cline, the film exists in a dystopian vision of Earth in the year 2045 where the nerdier commercial products of the 1980s, particularly the coin-op arcade games, short-lived cult TV shows, and gee-whiz genre movies, take on an almost mythical quality. It's not simply fan service; it's fan worship.
For a movie overflowing with allusions ranging from Citizen Kane to Battletoads, there's actually very little time devoted to Easter Eggs. Instead, Spielberg keeps his ever-roving camera barreling through the OASIS, the video game world designed by the film's slacker Disney figure James Halliday, played with Garth-like drollness by stage veteran Mark Rylance. There aren't many opportunities to let out a breath, much less pause, point at the screen, and knowingly whisper to your date "That's Chappie." (Yes, Chappie is in this movie.)
But, in a telling diversion from Cline's 2011 novel, Spielberg does give one reference some space -- and it actually makes for a beguiling and effective scene in an otherwise pulverizing exercise in weaponized nostalgia. The moment arrives over halfway through the movie when teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) and his group of hacker friends are faced with the second challenge in Halliday's elaborate quest, which will give the winner ownership of his company and control of the OASIS. How do you find the secret key? You've got to survive The Shining first.
Unlike the car race sequence that occurs towards the beginning of the movie or the final battle at the end, which both fly through references like a Family Guy episode directed by Michael Bay, The Shining challenge is a more leisurely paced homage. As if he's checking items off a list, Spielberg recreates almost every memorable aspect of director Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror film. We get the creepy twins, the elevator filled with blood, the photo of all the partygoers on the wall, the unfriendly guest in room 237, and the axe-chase in the snow. (He even has Wade reference the fact that Stephen King hated the adaptation.)
What made Spielberg make such a drastic departure from Cline's text? The second challenge in the book involves Wade literally quoting lines from the Matthew Broderick movie WarGames from memory. (In a book filled with tedious set-pieces, it stands out for its inanity.) It's not hard to see why a more cinematic, action-oriented version of the challenge was cooked up for the movie adaptation. We need to see the characters struggle and overcome challenges, not simply show off their movie trivia cred.
Though The Shining is hardly an obscure movie, it's not exactly in the cyberpunk wheelhouse that Ready Player One inhabits. According to an interview with screenwriter Zak Penn, who shares a co-writing credit on the script with Cline, he was inspired by the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Action Hero, which follows a young boy who gets pulled into the movie screen of a violent thriller. But The Shining wasn't there first choice: Penn says Blade Runner was in an earlier draft of the script but was eventually ditched because Blade Runner 2049 was in development at the same time.
Not so coincidentally, The Shining was also released by Warners, the same studio distributing Ready Player One. Just like a viral tweet sent out earlier this week, which found Steven Spielberg walking through his house with a camera pointed at himself like a teen vlogger and chastising Carl's Jr. for selling "Spiel-burgers," there's nothing about Ready Player One that doesn't feel like an act of brand maintenance. By doing an updated karaoke version of the era when he was at his commercial peak -- there's even a moment when composer Alan Silvestri samples his own Back to the Future score -- Spielberg feels like he's outrunning his own past, like Indiana Jones getting chased by a giant boulder. Or perhaps the audience is Indiana Jones and Ready Player One is the boulder? It's hard to tell.
Here's the thing, though: The Shining sequence in Ready Player One works. The context and history surrounding it give the scene a meta-textual and personal weight that's otherwise lacking in many of the film's more contemporary references. Spielberg first met Kubrick on the set of The Shining and even filmed portions of Raiders of the Lost Ark in the same studio space in England. The two went on to a have a creatively fruitful relationship, which included them trading notes, ideas, and concept art for an adaptation of a short story by English writer Brian Aldiss that eventually became the film A.I., which Spielberg wrote and directed following Kubrick's death. A.I. remains a brilliant and often misunderstood blip in the Spielberg filmography: a movie that hauntingly melds Kubrick's dark worldview with Spielberg's more sentimental side to the point where the two become indistingusihable. It's an act of cinematic alchemy.
The Shining sequence in Ready Player One is not as daring as anything in A.I. (Cline's "stacks" have nothing on the flesh fair.) Spielberg has essentially turned his former collaborator's movie into a 3D theme park ride, obsessively remanufacturing every drop of blood and peeling paint chip in an effort to thrill. At one point, Olivia Cooke's Art3mis jumps on the heads of ballroom dancers like she's Mario leaping from Goomba to Goomba. Calling it "shameless" doesn't even quite describe it. Ready Player One is post-shame.
But there's loving quality to the painstaking way this particular act of fan fiction is rendered. Is it really that different than the Gundam reference that occurs later in the film? Probably not. Isn't paying tribute to The Shining basically like shouting out Duke Nukem for people with Letterboxd accounts? Sure. He's pandering, right? Well, yes. As exhausting as Ready Player One can be, it still has perversely entertaining moments that numb you with the familiar and then unsettle you with the odd and the strange. It's a movie that's not only in conversation with the past, it's also in conversation with itself. Too bad it has so little to say.