In the dystopian future of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 bestseller Ready Player One, the world is in a shambles. The global economy has collapsed and all societies are incredibly divided. In the absence of any hope for a better future, every man, woman, and child on the planet has retreated to the comfort of a virtual reality game, Oasis.

At the centre of the book and the movie is a quest, created by the games’ multi-trillionaire founder James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Halliday is an eccentric Steve Jobs-like figure who is worshipped around the world. The winner of the quest, the clues to which are references to US pop culture of the 1980s, including the movies of John Hughes and Stanley Kubrick, classic arcade video games and techno music, will inherit Halliday’s empire and gain control over the Oasis.

Eighteen-year-old Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is one among thousands of gamers who believes that he has a chance at the top prize. Wade, whose in-game character goes by the name Parzival, teams with a gang of four, which obviously involves a beautiful girl – a punk rock, action hero-inspired take on the manic-pixie dream girl archetype called Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). Their mission is not only to win the quest but to prevent evil corporation IOI and its despotic CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) from taking over the Oasis and milking it for maximum monetisation.

Ready Player One is Spielberg’s attempt to return to the kind of films he used to make in the 1970s and ’80s, which were more concerned with spectacle and entertainment than providing messages or sermons. In that regard, he is successful. The film moves at a breathtaking pace, and Spielberg is able to conjure up some inventive action-filled set pieces. The best sequence takes place inside a cult horror film from the ’80s.

What Spielberg isn’t able to do is create a world that has actual stakes. Often, Ready Player One plays out as a nerd fantasy where even though the real world is almost totally destroyed, the only things that matter are being able to kiss a girl, make friends and win at a video game. The director is also unable to solve the problem of creating VR technology, which doesn’t seem cumbersome and is believable. Much of the movie takes place inside the game, and cartoon-like characters cannot be taken seriously, just like James Cameron’s blue aliens from Avatar, which have become hilarious with each passing year.

Cline’s novel was not very good at character development or world building either, but coasted along on its umpteen callbacks and references. Spielberg’s film, which could have done so much more, does not improve on the novel. It’s a missed opportunity.

Ready Player One.