This is not a guide to all the movies referenced in Ready Player One. You can find plenty of videos attempting to highlight every one of the movie’s “Easter egg” homages and direct allusions featured in the pop culture smorgasbord based on Ernest Cline’s sci-fi novel (ScreenCrush has a good one). There’s more to the makeup of this movie than just its sampling and remixing of nostalgia-baiting icons of past films and video games.
This week’s curation of Movies to Watch After is a mix of the most direct and substantial cinematic building blocks of Steven Spielberg’s latest and other relevant recommendations. Not included are the usual selections involving virtual reality, though, considering we just detailed the history of VR in movies, plus I recently highlighted such works (including the essential World on a Wire) in lists of movies to watch after Ghost in the Shell and Mute.
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Based on the book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl, this movie would seem a victim of being ripped off if its clear influence wasn’t so acknowledged by everyone involved with Ready Player One. Spielberg went so far as to offer Gene Wilder, who played the titular role of Wonka, a similar part in his new movie — fortunately the late actor declined, since that would have been too on the nose.
But then so was having a version of the song “Pure Imagine” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in the trailer for Ready Player One. And so was Cline’s comparison of his story to Dahl’s when introducing the Ready Player One trailer last fall: “If Willy Wonka was a video game designer instead of a candy maker and he held his golden ticket contest inside the world’s greatest video game — that’s the essence of what the story is.”
Way to wear your influence on your sleeve, guys. Yes, both movies involve an eccentric business icon who decides to give away his company through a competition that captivates the whole world. Ready Player One hero Wade Watts even, like Willy Wonka hero Charlie Bucket, happens to live in the same city where the contest is sort of centralized (that’s not the case in the book, though). And his final test of selflessness before winning is also very similar to Charlie’s.
Besides being reminiscent of Wonka, the character of James Halliday in Ready Player One is especially based on iconic businessman Howard Hughes (15%) and video game designer Richard Garriott (the other 85%), according to Cline. Of course, you can see Hughes’s life portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. For Garriott’s story, check out the documentary Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott’s Road to the Stars, which is focused on his experience as a space tourist.
The Shining (1980)
One of the most significant movies of reference in Ready Player One, this Stephen King adaptation is actually meticulously recreated in Spielberg’s movie and employed as the setting of one of its virtual reality puzzles. After realizing a clue refers to King’s dislike of this film version of his 1977 novel, the heroes enter The Shining itself and navigate its Overlook Hotel setting, complete with encounters with the Grady twins, the bathing woman from room 237, the elevator blood deluge, and the hedge maze.
It’s a very funny and freaky sequence, but it surely helps if you — unlike poor Aech — are familiar with Stanley Kubrick’s movie before seeing Ready Player One. If not, catching up with the horror classic afterwards is necessary if you’ve never seen it. Never mind if King might discourage doing so. While not part of the book, which has a task set in the world of WarGames instead, The Shining was substituted since like Ready Player One it’s a Warner Bros. property. Also, Spielberg surely loved remaking bits of one of his favorite films (which he admits in the below video to not liking the first time he saw it). He had previously gotten to make a film that Kubrick had meant to direct himself, as well: A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Also, he repurposed the Overlook set for one of his own for Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Other movies I’d suggest seeking out related to the idea of characters finding themselves in other movies include The Last Action Hero, which was created by Ready Player One screenwriter Zak Penn (and gets a reference in the new movie), Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. Those are all fictional films within the films, though. As far as I can tell, The Shining bit is not something that’s really been done before — outside of music videos and spoofs, that is. However, the sequence did remind me a lot of the re-creation of Back to the Future scenes for Back to the Future Part II.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
Mashup and remix content has been around since the early years of movies (and beforehand in literature and other media), but two big ’80s movies rather nonchalantly delved into expansive crossover territory to show fans of animation and history their favorite figures interacting. What if Donald Duck met Daffy Duck? See them face off in a musical duel in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, executive produced by Spielberg and directed by Robert Zemeckis, who is paid tribute a good deal in Ready Player One. What if Billy the Kid befriended Socrates? Find out when Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan travel through time and borrow them from their own eras in order to indirectly save the world through the act of mashup in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Zemeckis also gave us both iconic time-travel movies (the Back to the Future trilogy) and history as mashup (Forrest Gump). But Bill & Ted combines the two for something done before and since with afterlife fiction — see “The Divine Comedy” and Pixar’s latest, Coco — yet not done enough with time-stream crossovers. With his depiction of Toon Town in Roger Rabbit, meanwhile, Zemeckis is proving to have been a pioneer of a kind of pop culture collage we’re seeing more and more of lately. Just skip down to The Lego Movie for one big example.
Second Skin (2008) and Life 2.0 (2010)
One thing we need to remember about the mashup of Ready Player One is that all the pop culture characters are just avatars, not the “real thing.” We’re not seeing Chucky attack Sixers. We’re seeing a form of digital cosplay within the virtual world of the OASIS where a Child’s Play fan is attacking Sixers. This has been brought up a lot because of the minor controversy of the Iron Giant’s involvement in the movie as a more violent incarnation than fans appreciate — speaking of which, if you’ve never seen The Iron Giant, the cult favorite animated feature’s title character getting a spotlight in Ready Player One will hopefully lead you and many others to check it out.
There are a handful of documentaries that look at virtual world gaming and the people who spend all their free time navigating digital settings while taking the form of avatars. Second Skin is one that focuses on MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Gaming) and showcases not just real individuals who mostly live online but also their alternate identities. The doc does a good job respectfully representing the people and their real lives and what sorts of interactivity they have in both the digital and the non-digital world.
Another similar documentary, Life 2.0 is concentrated specifically on hardcore users of Second Life, which is not so much a game as a virtual world experience. That’s the sort of thing that would evolve into something truly VR-based like the OASIS. Another suggested documentary is Catfish (and its TV series spin-off) for more on how online alternate identities and avatars can be used for deceptive purposes.
Summer Wars (2009)
Ready Player One reminded me of this anime coming-of-age film from Mamoru Hosada mainly just for the fact that both movies involve a utopian virtual world that everyone uses and populates through individual avatars. But in this movie, which also has its own real-world plot in which a teen pretends to be his friend’s boyfriend while they attend her grandmother’s birthday party, the protagonist is believed to have done the opposite of what Wade does for the OASIS in Spielberg’s movie. When the virtual world here, called OZ, winds up corrupted by a severe cyber attack, the boy is accused of causing it. Of course (spoiler alert) he and his friends wind up fixing everything in the end.
The Lego Movie (2014) and Hell’s Club (2015)
One of the only frustrating things about the depiction of the OASIS in Ready Player One is its IP limitations. The movie doesn’t just feature visual references to Warner Bros. intellectual property, but the majority of its pop cultural offerings do have to come from within the studio’s own library. Commercial properties just aren’t so easily mashed up with IPs from multiple corporations’ portfolios without special deals being made.
Favors are made here and there thanks to Spielberg’s power in Hollywood, at least. But having cameos is different than having full-on character interaction, and prominently featuring a Back to the Future-inspired Delorean isn’t the same as prominently featuring Marty McFly as a major player, even as someone’s avatar. The same is true with the animated mashup The Lego Movie, which is also a Warner Bros. release. You can get away with a bit more with animation, plus the Lego toy brand has so many licenses with various studios that it makes sense for some of the more popular movie-branded minifigs, such as the Star Wars character variety, to make an appearance.
For something entirely different and free, there are non-commercial mashup videos online. I spotlighted a number of them in my list of what to watch after The Lego Batman Movie, including one of the mash-terpieces of Antonio Maria Da Silva. Hell’s Club is the first and still the best of his brilliant combinations of iconic movie characters, splicing them together to make it seem as though the Terminator, Scarface, Jon Wick, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and so many others are dancing in and shooting up the nightclub of Carlito Brigante. And it almost seems to receive an homage in the form of the club scene in Ready Player One: both include a tribute to the disco dancing of Saturday Night Fever. For more on Da Silva’s work, see my 2016 piece championing his videos (including the Hell’s Club sequels) as the all-time greatest cinematic universe.
Steve Jobs (2015)
Halliday is compared to Steve Jobs in Ready Player One, but he’s also somewhat inspired by the real-life tech legend and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. More than singularly based on Jobs, though, the relationship between Halliday and Ogden Morrow is very much akin to that of Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the other founder of Apple and Jobs’s former best friend. Basically, both pairs of partners had a falling out. Morrow is more aligned with Wozniak than Halliday is with Jobs, actually, with the character’s back story and career modeled more on the lesser-known man.
You can see some of the relationship between Jobs and Wozniak depicted in this Oscar-nominated biopic from director Danny Boyle. It’s not just about the title figure’s true life story, though, and that also fits with Ready Player One more. While the point of Halliday’s contest in the end seemed to be an expression of the late OASIS mastermind’s regrets in life and love, including for his old friend, Steve Jobs is a three-part film about Jobs’s role as a father, of both Apple computers and, more so, his daughter Lisa, and custody issues with each (more on that here). For a more truth-focused portrait, there are multiple documentaries to watch, including Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine and Steve James: The Lost Interview.