In His Hands
By Adam Nayman

Dir. Steven Spielberg, U.S., Disney

The title character of Steven Spielberg’s partially animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG specializes in the manipulation of the subconscious: his job is to capture and disseminate sprightly, extra-dimensional orbs that catalyze our deepest fantasies. Coming a year after the carefully color-coded emotions of Pixar’s Inside Out, the conceit of dreams as rainbow-hued fireflies feels more familiar than it should, but there’s still ample majesty and mystery in the sight of a cave lined with rows of glowing mason jars—the collective unconscious as a technicolor light show. When the film’s plot, which is more or less reverently drawn from Dahl’s 1982 novel, requires him to concoct a nightmare, the imagery is resonant in a different way. We see a kindly wizard conjuring up and bottling shadow-plays for an unassuming, suggestible audience, secure in the knowledge that he’s blending the elements just right for maximum effect. It’s as if Spielberg, in his capacity as our most eminent dream-weaver, was saying, for posterity this time: “It me.”

That it’s considerably more rewarding to consider The BFG as authorial self-portraiture than take it on its more overt terms as a “kid’s movie” is at once typical of the problems this filmmaker poses to critics when he’s in benign-entertainer mode and indicative that we’ve entered the valedictory phase of Spielberg’s career. This December, the kid who never met a star he couldn’t wish upon turns 70, the same age that Stanley Kubrick made Eyes Wide Shut and Buñuel began The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and only a decade behind the Kurosawa of Dreams (a film that Spielberg coproduced along with old pals Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese out of respect for the Japanese grandmaster). This is not to suggest that Spielberg’s artistry is moribund, nor conversely that The BFG should get the benefit of the doubt as a work of true seriousness because its director is getting up there. More than any other late Spielberg work, it feels like a film about legacies, a theme punched home further by the fact that it’s dedicated to Melissa Mathison, who died shortly of cancer after completing the screenplay.

Mathison, of course, was the then-unheralded screenwriter behind E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which is surely The BFG’s spiritualtwin in Spielberg’s filmography, right down to the acronymic title (although a case could also be made for A.I.: Artificial Intelligence). In E.T., Mathison and Spielberg freely integrated an entire constellation’s worth of pop-culture reference points—from The Little Prince to Bicycle Thieves to Old Yeller—into an original story about a lonely boy who has a best friend drop out of the sky: the powerful psychic link between Elliott and E.T. (whose names are mirrors of one another) expresses the necessity of firmly embracing aspects of childhood while ultimately letting them go. That’s the same idea animating The BFG, except that for this new film Mathison was working directly from a beloved book, and thus constrained in her storytelling, and instead of a vulnerable, infantile alien, the metaphorical figure (played by Mark Rylance beneath a photorealistic CGI exterior) takes the form of a 25-foot-tall titan. He’s exactly as big as the shark in Jaws, but with E.T.’s long, craning neck.

The Spielberg who made Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind—and for that matter, E.T.—could still surprise and unnerve an audience, because he was still on the verge of realizing his destiny as a film-critical adjective. While the main qualities of “Spielbergian” cinema haven’t really changed over the last forty years, their potency has waned—especially in certain combinations. The first act of E.T. is genuinely frightening, culminating in Elliott/E.T.’s near-simultaneous shrieks of terror, a joke on the conventions of so many cheap 1950s sci-fi movies. Not five minutes into The BFG, Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is plucked out of her bed in a London orphanage by a gigantic arm (shades of the mechanical Martian tendrils in War of the Worlds), but there’s no real fear in her abduction, the way there was when the UFO came for little Barry in Close Encounters. By now, we know all too well whose hands she and we are in. And we know that they have a soft touch.

I am not suggesting that The BFG would have been a better movie if Mathison and Spielberg had substituted one of its hero’s despicable siblings—Bloodbottler, say, or The Fleshlumpeater—for Rylance’s sweet malapropism generator and dispatched Sophie like the hippie chick from Jaws. However, the best children’s fiction—including many of Dahl’s books, The BFG included, if not especially—is filled with menace, and that’s something Spielberg can’t quite work up this time out, despite his best efforts. Having taken nosy Sophie back to Giant Country to keep her from alerting the world to his presence, the BFG gives her a vision of how dangerous it would be for her to try to escape, culminating in a shot of the little girl being swallowed up by one of the massive cannibals beyond his cozy cave door. The effect should be horrifying, but Sophie shrugs it off in a way that cues us to relax along with her—to not worry about what we’re seeing before our eyes. As a result, the tension drains out of the film, and the scenes where the bad giants (a cabal of comedians, including Jemaine Clement and Bill Hader) torture the BFG and try to sniff out Sophie feel like the grueling, drawn-out set-pieces they are, and nothing more—state-of-the-art, 24-karat goldbricking.

That’s disappointing, because at his best, Spielberg expresses ideas through action, as he did in parts of the motion-capture animation The Adventures of Tintin. The BFG is mostly logy and prosaic, especially when it gets into its speech-heavy final scenes, which recall not the high-points of its maker’s career, but the soggy sentimentality of Hook. The nightmare-building sequence stands out because it seems to be using visual language to say something about the movie we’re watching, and more generally about how the inspiration for real-world action is often couched in acts of imagination. It’s actually a bit disturbing to contemplate the deeper meaning of Sophie’s final plan, which is to implant a nightmare in the brain of the Queen of England and frighten her into sending in the army to quell a threat to national security. Even though this idea originates with Dahl, a less generous critic might say that the dream of a good and necessary war, with glittering heavy artillery and clearly delineated villains, is one Spielberg has been weaving for a while now. When the Queen telephones the White House and demands to talk to “Ronnie”—fixing the story in the early 1980s—it’s a shift from the book’s alliance with Sweden and Iraq, as well as probably the best laugh in the whole movie, except maybe for a bit involving farting corgis.

The hotline gag is also an echo of an earlier scene where the heroes spy on a sleeping boy who’s been infused with the fantasy of suddenly talking on the phone to the American President—an edifying, affirmative show of pride in front of his father, who’s duly impressed. The BFG’s mandate is to make the world’s children feel as good about themselves and their futures as possible, and save the scary stuff for the grown-ups who deserve it or can act on it. Once again, it’s not hard to see the movie as a director’s meditation on his own craft.It’d be nice to conclude by saying that if this incarnation of BFG is an avatar for Steven Spielberg, his closing promise to Sophie to keep plying his lonely, generation-shaping trade while she grows up and away from him is a form of covenant from filmmaker to audience. But because I was ultimately so bored by The BFG—reduced toa glazed state similar to but distinct from actual thrall—my mind wandered instead to another other aged, island-strewn magician. I thought of Prospero, at the end of The Tempest, brandishing his staff and sweetly begging our indulgence as he confesses a fear that his abilities are dwindling. Spielberg’s charms are not yet overthrown, but his movie is not such stuff as dreams are made on.