Steven Spielberg has indicated during the press tour for Ready Player One that it had, alongside Jaws and Saving Private Ryan, one of the very hardest shoots of any film he's ever directed. I think this is a slightly odd claim to make publicly - "this shoot was a grueling misery and it took everything out of me" isn't what you want the viewer to have on their mind when they head into the big fluffy CGI epic about weaponised nostalgia - but it's out there, and since it's out there, all I can say is that, as I look at Ready Player One, yeah, I definitely see it.

One of the unifying traits of all the director's best popcorn films is a tangible, boyish enthusiasm for his content (this is even true of some of his non-popcorn films; Lincoln, for example, is about as giddy as an Oscarbait costume drama about politics could imaginably be). In a great Spielberg film, there is always a pungent sense of "gee whiz!" permeating the whole: Gee whiz! Dinosaurs! - Gee whiz! Aliens! - Gee whiz! Sharks! - Gee whiz! Archaeology! Ready Player One is a film very much designed for a certain gee whiz-ness: gee whiz, fully immersive virtual reality; gee whiz, physics-defying spaces of pure imagination; gee whiz, a sandbox full of pop cultural touchstones from the 1980s, a decade whose pop culture was so heavily informed by Spielberg's own films.

And I think that's part of the problem: Ready Player is based on a novel by Ernest Cline (who co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn), born in 1972 and thus an adolescent at exactly the period lionised by this story. If it is going to have that starstruck sense of awe, it needs a director who share's Cline's childlike enthusiasm for '80s pop culture and old-school video gaming. Spielberg's childhood enthusiasms, which have never been hard to figure out from his movies, have nothing to do with any of this, as of course they could not. So it is that we get one of the only films in Spielberg's career that he seems totally uninterested in having made, with only the most pro forma stabs at overwhelming spectacle.

Oh, the spectacle is there. It's a ridiculously expensive film and it looks it. The plot is a relatively straightforward fetch quest: in 2045, everybody (in America? The world? Certain economic classes of the above? The film does not answer, because the film is petrified to have to engage with any of the implications of its concept) deals with the post-resource collapse of society by spending every minute in the OASIS, a stunningly realistic virtual reality created many years earlier by bashful genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance, who is adorable in the various flashbacks where he shows up, giving the film by far its warmest and most humane character), where you can do anything and be anything, but it also follows the particular "collect coins and upgrade" logic of an RPG. Halliday died some time ago, leaving behind a promise that if anyone could solve his elaborate puzzles, they would win control of the OASIS, and also all of Halliday's personal wealth. Which, as the only owner of apparently the only successful corporation in the world, is a whole fuckton of wealth. One of the people who have continued chipping away at Halliday's impossible tasks is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an 18-year-old living in Columbus, Ohio, who plays as the elf-twink Parzival inside the OASIS, and the film follows perfectly direct video game logic as he and his virtual best friend Aech (Lena Waith) hunt for the three magic keys, competing with both mystery player/super-pretty girlfriend-in-waiting Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), and the wholly unimaginative, boring, and greedy Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), chief executive of IOI, a company hellbent on exploiting OASIS by turning Halliday's beatific fairyland into a hell of omnipresent ads and commercialism.

This means, in practice, lots of sequences set in an elaborate CGI neverwhere, with the characters and cameras darting through fantasy/sci-fi landscapes populated mostly by pop culture references. Though it is not, chiefly, a movie about pop culture references; they are merely the sprinkles atop a film that mostly resembles Spielberg's attempt at doing Avatar, and not merely because all of the characters are literally avatars. Like that film, Ready Player One contrasts an all-CGI, mo-capped world of impossibilities made flesh, contrasting it with a future world in which human society has turned into an ugly, impersonal field of the desolate or the sterile. It speaks to the kind of filmmaker Spielberg is - more to the point, the kind of filmmaker his long-time cinematographer, Janusz Kamiński, is - that the real-world scenes in Ready Player One are more evocative and imaginative the the ones in the OASIS. Helped out by Adam Stockhausen's used-future production design (which makes the world into a fusion of recovered parts, kludged-together attempts keeping things running, and the flat white hallways of so much science fiction in the last half-century), as well as Kamiński's glowing, diffuse cinematography, the world outside of the OASIS is both beautiful and corrosive, stripped of any strong color or cohesive design. The contrast with the bold, ultra-saturated dreamscapes created by an army of Industrial Light and Magic technicians is every bit as striking as it needs to be.

So yes, it has spectacle. But what of it? It has no feeling toward that spectacle. It's just there, shiny and bright and soulless. This was not true of Avatar. Hell, it's not even true of TRON: Legacy, the other film I couldn't stop thinking about the whole time I was watching Ready Player One. There's just no emotion here, and what is Spielberg if not a master manipulator of emotions? It is, in fact, the thing he is perhaps most noted for, by his fans and detractors alike. But despite Sheridan's game attempt to make Wade/Parzival a shuffling, aw-shucks everyteen, the film's protagonist is never more than a vessel for us to hitch onto as we tour the flashy spaces that aren't really any more flashy than the spaces in other similarly mostly-CGI movies. God knows, the boilerplate romance between Parzival and Art3mis isn't enough to provide an emotional hook, either.

Really, it's only ever when the film leaves its spectacle behind to look at the human faces beneath the CGI masks that it strikes any kind of human chord. And in fairness, it does this somewhat often. A hugely generous viewer might suggest this is a sign of the film's ambivalence about immersive video games, the ravages of e-commerce, the commodification of nostalgia, pandering pop culture, and all the rest: it only feels right and true when all those things are shunted aside. Personally, I think that's just an accident. A useful, interesting accident (and no Spielberg film was ever great because of the themes he knew he was placing into it), but not enough to compensate for how disengaged the film feels for so much of its running time. It's bright, shiny, packed to the brim with detail, and totally without passion, and passion is the thing that transforms expensive effects work into movie magic, when all is said and done.