James Halliday, the would-be Willy Wonka played by Mark Rylance in Steven Spielberg’s frustrating adaptation of Ready Player One, speaks very quietly, a hushed monotone.
He’s obsessed with the pop culture of his childhood, to the degree that he remixes a bunch of it into the virtual world of the OASIS. The OASIS becomes a pop culture artifact of its own, one that everybody in the world is obsessed with and one that a giant, faceless corporation wants to gain control of in order to maximize the profits it can gain from it.
What’s more, Halliday pushed away friends and even the woman he loved, who is largely written out of the narrative of his life that’s preserved in the OASIS for treasure hunters hoping to decipher the clues he left, which lead to a prize that will give the winner control of the OASIS itself. He is a lonely iconoclast, haunted by his greatest creation until his death, and even afterward, when he only exists as a digital self.
Rylance gives the character tremendous weirdness and tremendous pathos. He’s my favorite part of the movie by far, and I wish that all involved had tuned in to what he’s doing sooner than the last 10 minutes, when the movie abruptly tries to shoehorn in a message about the importance of reality. He’s great, and I would not object to Halliday randomly popping up in other movies to hijack them for a little bit.
But here’s the thing I couldn’t stop thinking every time he was on screen: Is Spielberg subtweeting George Lucas?
Ready Player One allows Spielberg to pay tribute to friends living and dead. So why not one of his very best friends?
Here come the spoilers!
If there’s a quality of Ready Player One that gives the film a bittersweet heart that keeps it from becoming wholly indulgent, it’s the sense that Spielberg is using the film to send little tokens of affection to his friends and collaborators, both living and dead. Robert Zemeckis actually gets name-checked (in a way that doesn’t make a ton of sense), and a lengthy homage to The Shining recreates the set of that film so literally that Spielberg’s pal Stanley Kubrick, who died in 1999, surely would have recoiled in horror.
(I imagine Spielberg and Kubrick’s friendship being akin to the relationship between the cute, gregarious kitten Nermal and Garfield, and this is surely the first time this sentence has ever been written.)
Within the film, Halliday sends players on these quests in order to assuage his own sense of guilt over all the chances he didn’t take, all of the people he didn’t reach out to. And it’s not hard to read some of the same into Spielberg’s choices — here are tributes to friends of his that he maybe doesn’t see as often anymore, now that he’s probably the most famous director in history. And here’s one big tribute to a friend he can’t see anymore.
This sense of regret also peppers Halliday’s interactions with the various characters he meets throughout the film, which led a friend I talked to about the film to opine that maybe Halliday is meant as a Spielberg stand-in. Ready Player One is, after all, built atop so much of the pop culture architecture Spielberg helped erect in the first place, and Spielberg has expressed some regret surrounding nostalgia culture.
(It’s no mistake that the world of Ready Player One is one steeped in fanboy nostalgia and is also one slowly but surely dying, choking on its own memories.) So maybe Halliday is his authorial insertion character, the mad scientist who saw how his creation got out of control.
But Spielberg has always possessed a sunnier disposition than Halliday. That gets him in trouble from time to time; so many of his films (especially A.I., the film he directed from an idea by Kubrick and one of Spielberg’s best) have been written off prematurely as “too sentimental” until viewers realized just how horrifying they truly are.
But even when he’s warning about the dire future of the film industry, he never seems too worked up about it. He’s the most successful filmmaker in history. Why would he be?
No, the filmmaker Halliday most reminded me of is one curious for his absence from Ready Player One, save for an offhand reference to Star Wars’ famous Millennium Falcon: George Lucas. If you listen to Lucas’s slightly reedy voice, then listen to Rylance’s affected voice, it sounds eerily like an impression, and it’s not hard to see in Halliday’s relationship to the OASIS the way Lucas came to see Star Wars as a bit of a cross to bear.
Lucas hasn’t pushed away all his old friends from the ’70s filmmaking days in the way Halliday cut himself off from his past, but he does live way off from Hollywood, on a ranch in Marin County, California. And rumors have long swirled about how instrumental his ex-wife, Marcia Lucas, was to making the first Star Wars trilogy what it was.
She won an Oscar as part of the editing team on Star Wars, did uncredited editing work on Empire, then worked on Return of the Jedi before never working on another movie again. She and George Lucas divorced in 1983 — the same year Jedi came out.
Plus, consider the character of Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), who ends up being the slightly more gregarious version of Halliday and, thus, ends up getting the girl and finding more success winning friends and influencing people out in “the real world.”
Here, then, might be the Spielberg stand-in — right down to the winking way Ogden subtly influences (or, you might say, directs) the characters through the treasure hunt in the film.
Now, the Halliday-Lucas connection could just be a fun Easter egg of its own, something that allows my pop culture-steeped brain to seek connections where they might not be. After all, Spielberg and Lucas are good friends. It’s a little weird that Lucas’s creations have no place in the world of Ready Player One — until you remember that Lucas has no control over Star Wars anymore because he sold it off to Disney, which seemed unwilling to play ball with Warner Bros. when it came to putting some of its most beloved characters in the film.
But the more I think about this, the more I realize that so much of what makes Rylance’s performance work for me is that weird melancholy he brings to the role, and that melancholy is inseparable from the fact that Spielberg is a man who turned 71 a few months ago, directing a movie about teenagers.
Wade Watts, the main character of the film, is essentially a cipher, a character whose only development is “really good at trivia.” Halliday has this rich, weird backstory that the movie takes its sweet time with, and his final scenes unspool with a regret and sorrow the movie hasn’t entirely earned. (Maybe unsurprisingly, the audience at my screening complained about these scenes leaving the theater.)
The worlds built by Spielberg and Lucas — and their other rough contemporaries — have gone on to become legendary, but I think it’s telling that the final 10 minutes of Ready Player One try, clumsily but earnestly, to celebrate first the joys of creation rather than obsession (via the very first Easter egg in a video game, hidden there by a creator who wanted credit for his work), then the joys of connection to other human beings.
It plays a little like a dad telling his kids to get some fresh air, sure, but almost sweetly so. Spielberg isn’t just admonishing us; he’s talking with very old friends, with ghosts, and maybe to himself. And that makes all the difference.