Let's Talk About The Most Interesting Scene In 'Ready Player One'

For good and ill, Ready Player One feels like the apotheosis of all things nostalgic in popular culture in the 21st century. The new Steven Spielberg film, based on the book of the same name by co-screenwriter Ernest Cline, depicts a future in which people of all ages escape into a virtual-reality landscape that's populated with cultural characters both famous and obscure. As much as it may be enjoyable to be reminded of the things you liked or loved (or still like or love), Ready Player One struggles with the balance between depicting nostalgic totems and commenting on the damage that obsessing over such cultural detritus does to a person.

One scene midway through the film represents this struggle, and is almost able to encapsulate the film's various issues in a microcosm. To describe that scene would be a pretty big spoiler, so consider yourself warned.

All Work and No Play...

For the truly uninitiated, Ready Player One focuses on Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teenager living in the "stacks" of Columbus, Ohio in the year 2045. Wade, like most other people in Columbus and other parts of the ravaged and dystopic world, spends his entire existence in a virtual reality called the Oasis, created by the now-dead tech genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance, unintentionally cosplaying as Eugene Levy's whacked-out folk musician from A Mighty Wind). Halliday, upon his death, revealed that he had created an elaborate game in the Oasis, for its countless users to find an Easter egg. Whoever finds the three keys that open up the Easter egg (as well as the Easter egg itself) will gain full control over the Oasis. Wade, known as Parzival in the Oasis, teams up with a few other users, or "gunters" (short for "Egg hunters") to complete each stage of this big scavenger hunt, while evading capture from a cruel and faceless corporation that wants to control the Oasis.

Roughly halfway through Ready Player One, Wade and his cohorts, including love interest Samantha/Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), have acquired one of the three keys and are very close to figuring out the location of the second. To do that, they go through Halliday's "journals," AKA his entire life history as documented via camera. In doing so, they realize that the circumstances of the single date he went on as an adult with a real, live woman hold the clue to the second key's location. Knowing that Halliday took his date (a woman named Karen, code-named Kira, who would go on to marry Halliday's closest colleague) to a movie, Wade picks up on a specific phrase in the clue he's been given regarding how to find the key: "the creator who hates his creation."

There, he alights upon the realization that, based on Halliday's journals, the second key is located inside none other than...a virtual-reality simulation of the movie Halliday saw with Karen: Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. (See, because Stephen King wrote the book on which the film is based, and he famously loathes the movie, as incredible and creepy as it is. Wade helpfully mansplains these details to Art3mis, and it's just as charming in the movie as it was for you to be told this information now.)

Words of Wisdom

So, yes, at one point in Ready Player One, Wade and his friends find themselves literally inside of Stanley Kubrick's seminal horror film The Shining. The ominous music from the opening credits boom on the soundtrack, Wade and the others see a stack of papers next to an abandoned typewriter saying "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," blood spills out of an elevator at the Overlook Hotel, there are creepy twin girls beckoning our heroes, and so on. From what I gather (having not read Cline's novel), this scene is a new creation for the film, which makes it even more fascinating.

As you might expect, most of Ready Player One not only takes place inside the Oasis, but it is naturally overloaded with computer animation. (To the film's credit, the depiction of the VR avatars of Wade, Samantha, and the other humans in the Oasis never descend into the uncanny valley.) The one section where this is clearly different is the Shining sequence. I've not yet read any detailed behind-the-scenes explanations as to how Spielberg pulled off this sequence, but I would imagine that we're literally looking at footage from Kubrick's film, just with CGI characters inserted inside.

When, for example, Wade's friend Aech (Lena Waithe) wanders off on her own, she's curious, but especially concerned because she's not seen The Shining. She, unlike so many people in the audience, doesn't know what to expect when she opens the door to the terrifying room 237, where she finds the beautiful naked woman who turns into a ghoulish hag. When she does so, it sure looks like the woman from the original film, not a CGI creation. (As cool as it can be to see Freddy Krueger, the Iron Giant, and more in Ready Player One, there's never a moment where it feels like the actual characters as they existed in the 1980s and 1990s from other films are recreated with such pinpoint accuracy.)

The whole purpose of the scene is for Wade, Samantha, Aech, and their friends to realize that if they want to get the second key, they have to rescue a 1920s-era avatar of Halliday's one-time date Karen/Kira. The subtext of this sequence only emphasizes Spielberg's longtime connection to the titanic auteur Stanley Kubrick. In 2001, he released his version of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, which Kubrick tried and failed to bring to the big screen.

Now, he's living inside of one of Kubrick's classics, if only for a few short minutes. Once Wade and the others find Karen/Kira, who's stuck in the Gold Room (you know, the ballroom where Jack Torrance descends into a supernatural party and meets Lloyd the bartender), the real story kicks back in. This version of Halliday's date has to be saved from her eternal damnation of being forced to dance in a floating, floorless party with zombies. (Ah, if only there had been zombies in the background of the big party in the Gold Room in Kubrick's film.) Art3mis ends up being the savior here, but in spite of the female character coming to the rescue, much of what happens here speaks to the trouble at the core of Ready Player One.

Can't Live With Them, Can't Live Without Them

One of the big selling points in the trailers for Ready Player One is the combination of popular culture from different studios, media, etc. Look, there's Freddy Krueger! (Bad news: if you saw the trailer, you have seen that character's entire appearance.) Hey, look, King Kong! The T-Rex from Jurassic Park! Other stuff! The detailed invocation of The Shining is unquestionably unexpected, and one of the film's few pleasant surprises. But its use of this classic speaks to the generally hollow pop-culture references throughout the film, no matter who's credited as director.

In my description of what happens in this sequence in Ready Player One, you may have noticed a couple of people in The Shining who I haven't mentioned yet, like, say, Jack Torrance or his wife Wendy, or their son Danny, or the kindly caretaker Mr. Hallorann. That's because, while this brief sequence shows us Room 237, the Gold Room, and the outdoor labyrinth at nighttime in the snow, none of the characters who speak or act or emote in The Shining appear in this film. The movie is invoked less for its terror — if you've seen the film, you may enjoy it more than if you're clueless as to why there are creepy twins or gushing blood — than for King's loathing of the adaptation.

There's also a microcosm of the film's problem with its female characters in this sequence. It's a good thing that Art3mis gets to have a heroic moment, but don't think too long about the circumstances that led her to this point. She's saving an avatar of a woman who went on one date with a guy who then created that avatar to be perpetually stuck in a horrific dance with members of the undead unless she's rescued by someone who thinks and acts exactly the way that Halliday would. (Ready Player One isn't entirely against criticizing its characters, but does so only briefly; when Halliday explains to his colleague that Karen/Kira wanted to go dancing, he immediately says, "So we went to a movie" without realizing how that makes him sound.)

Art3mis is not fully a damsel in distress — in the real world, she's leading a kinda/sorta rebellion against the corporation that wants to co-opt the Oasis for profit — but there's a disturbing directness to how much of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl she appears to be. She exists to validate Wade's love of pop culture (which, to be clear, isn't even his love of pop culture, as much as his choice to love whatever pop culture Halliday liked, which is creepy all on its own), and has a birthmark on her face that causes her to feel self-conscious. Thank goodness Wade sees through that to appreciate her inner beauty, as well as her outer beauty, because the birthmark on Samantha's face doesn't obscure that she's played by the winsome Olivia Cooke.

Come Play With Us

How Ready Player One utilizes The Shining is a longer version of how it invokes other pop culture. Consider how this movie features the Iron Giant, from Brad Bird's wonderful and underrated film, in its climactic battle. Yes, sure, it's cool to see the Iron Giant in a Steven Spielberg movie, but less so when a character who never wanted to be a weapon is used in another movie gleefully as...a weapon. Yes, sure, it's cool to see the DeLorean from Back to the Future here, or King Kong or the T-Rex, or even blink-and-you'll-miss-them references to Last Action Hero and the like. But there is a point where all of those references, even the extended one to The Shining, make this movie into something akin to that old Chris Farley Show sketch on Saturday Night Live, asking us if we remember all these cool things from a couple decades ago. I do remember The Iron Giant. And The Shining. I love The Shining. Maybe I should just watch that instead.

Steven Spielberg is — prepare for an incoming hot take — one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. In his hands, Ready Player One is more frustrating than a failure, because he's able to craft solid action setpieces and pace the film well. As much as The Shining sequence stands out because it's baffling, it's also maybe the best scene in Ready Player One. Of course, a lot of why it's the best scene is simple: The Shining is, Stephen King's opinion aside, one of Stanley Kubrick's best films and if anyone was going to recreate it even briefly, it might as well be one of the greatest living filmmakers. This is probably the best possible adaptation of Ready Player One we could ever get, but even its best, most unexpected scene can't hide the nagging flaws at its center.