This Ready Player One article spoils something delightful. You’ve been warned.
Picking a “date movie” can be tough. And when you don’t know the significant other’s tastes—especially if they’re not even a significant other yet—finding something you agree on is downright insurmountable. So leave it to Mark Rylance’s James Halliday, an emotionally stunted cross between Steve Jobs and Garth from Wayne’s World, to select Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Bless him.
While it did not end well for Halliday, it worked out splendidly for moviegoers with what is arguably the best scene in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. Up until that moment, we’ve had an injection of pure ‘80s nostalgia right into our bloodstream. And while intoxicating, it was such a blend of varying forms of wistfulness that nothing felt exactly pure. Most of the pop culture artifacts that inundate Ready Player One are stripped of context, becoming more tokens of importance instead of representations of why they’re adored. Yet that’s not the case with The Shining. Nay, Spielberg slows things down to give a full, visceral embrace of the iconography and importance of the Kubrick horror movie that had Jack Nicholson successfully steal Johnny Carson’s catchphrase.
But then that would sense, given that it is likely Kubrick means the most to Ready Player One’s director.
Indeed, the importance of this sequence is more than just the shock of seeing the Overlook Hotel so immaculately replicated, complete with the faux-soft fuzz of celluloid. In fact, the surreal giddiness of the moment is directly proportional to how familiar you are with Spielberg and Kubrick’s relationship as a whole.
For the last third of Kubrick’s career, he and Spielberg had a unique and pivotal friendship that began during the making of The Shining. Practically on the very Overlook Hotel lobby set that was recreated in Ready Player One, no less. Kubrick was already considered the master after doing instant Hollywood classics like Paths of Glory, Spartacus, and Dr. Strangelove. But by the same time Spielberg was entering the industry and redefining what a Hollywood film is with some of the first modern blockbusters in 1975’s Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Kubrick was already redefining what cinematic storytelling was. Period. After all, he had just made 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971).
This was the context when a master and a blossoming filmmaker met while preparing to share the same space for wildly different films. For after The Shining completed its production, Spielberg would tear down the Overlook Hotel and replace it with the set for the Chamber of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark. This contrast in style and sensibility—as well as perhaps a mutual respect/envy for the talent the other possessed—was immediately apparent. The next time Spielberg met Kubrick, he confessed he didn’t care for The Shining, having only seen it once at the time. Spielberg has since seen it dozens upon dozens of times and considers it one of his all-time favorite films.
That paradox, and intense study of each other’s work, continued as long as Kubrick was alive, with Spielberg often sounding off projects he was developing across Kubrick’s ear, who would then in turn offer his advice or critiques on the career choices of the younger filmmaker. To the public, one was generally seen as commercial and the other as the pure artiste, but the truth was something much murkier to both than this dual narrative, which continued to entwine all the way until they teamed for A.I., a picture where Kubrick tried to evoke Spielberg, and yet when the latter finished the late filmmaker’s movie in 2001, the reception among critics was still generally “if only it were a Stanley Kubrick film.”
This unusual relationship between what many would consider to be the two cinematic poles of the late 20th century makes Spielberg’s ultimate lavish recreation of The Shining in Ready Player One a fascination. Because this sequence is not in Ernest Cline’s book. The closest equivalent is that in the novel, the Parzival character has to recreate verbatim the whole movie of WarGames while playing the Matthew Broderick character. And though that John Badham teen adventure film is perfectly enjoyable, Kubrick it ain’t.
Instead Spielberg meticulously recreates all the iconographic beats from The Shining: the ghostly twin girls who beckon Aech (Lena Waithe) to his/her seeming doom; the river of blood that erupts from the elevator; the audience-baiting moment of reentering Room 237 and finding a naked siren ready to offer the most revealing surprises, at least again to poor, poor Aech (although she was digging it for a moment). My personal favorite is inserting Spielberg lucky charm Mark Rylance as Halliday into the Overlook Hotel portrait from 1921, in which he and Kira (Perdita Weeks) replace Jack Nicholson.
Curiously, the one aspect left absent from Ready Player One’s intense recreations is Nicholson himself. This was the one element that Spielberg at least initially cited as his problem with the film when he first saw it in 1980, and even if that opinion has changed, Nicholson’s absence is easily explainable now: For Steven Spielberg, The Shining is Stanley Kubrick; not Jack Nicholson or Shelley Duvall, or even Stephen King.
We are reminded of this even as the sequence is introduced via the riddle of a “creator who hates his creation.” King, to this day, hates The Shining film. This is due to a variety of nuanced reasons, but the broadest rationale is that The Shining novel was an intimately personal story for King, who likely saw something of himself in Jack Torrance, an author and former teacher who tries to be a good man but is tempted by the specter of alcoholism to give into his demons. The Shining, as a book, merely adds actual ghosts.
Conversely, in Kubrick’s film, Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance is ready for the looney bin long before ever stepping foot into the Overlook Hotel. In the film version, it is debatable whether the ghosts are even real. It is a cold movie about a cold family, and all-around something more sinister than a tale concerned with a crisis in conscience. Kubrick isn’t interested in anyone’s conscience.
Thus Spielberg is also only interested in recreating that first film that allowed him to cross paths with Kubrick, and the effect it has had on him from one of indifference to enduring obsession. It is a movie of atmosphere, tone, and dread—elements Ready Player One hopes to bequeath to a new generation watching a modern blockbuster and perhaps not aware of the horror movie that made poor Shoto watch an entire picture “through my fingers.”
This is why it replaced WarGames. It is more than a nostalgic nod to a piece of childhood fandom. The Shining sequence in Ready Player One is a bizarre and knowing love letter from one friend to another, in the kind of blockbuster language and lexicon the recipient never learned, but so often wished he had.
As Spielberg said of Kubrick at the Academy Awards in 1999, following the older auteur’s death, “He dared us to have the courage of his convictions. And when we take that dare, we’re transported directly to his world, and we’re inside his vision. And in the whole history of movies, there’s been nothing like that vision ever.”
There still isn’t, but in his own Spielbergian way, Kubrick’s friend and rival got close.