Steven Spielberg, for all his weaknesses as a filmmaker—a treacly obsession with childhood, a tendency to end his movies three or four times, a total unwillingness to deal with, or even acknowledge, human sexuality—has never failed to entertain. He’s like a baseball player you can shake out of bed in the dead of winter who will still hit a line drive even though he’s half-asleep. His natural talents as a filmmaker are so overwhelming that he’s incapable of producing a movie that’s not compulsively watchable, even when it’s terrible.
Which is why it’s so baffling—and, frankly, a little worrisome—that his newest movie, The BFG, is such a mess, from start to finish. I don’t remember a Spielberg film that felt so unmoored, that floated so astray from its audience. Spielberg has made failures before—Nuke the Fridge!—but I’ve never seen him so lost. It’s like he forgot how to make a movie entirely.
The BFG is an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s famous book. The screenplay was written by the late Melissa Mathison, who wrote the script for E.T. But not even these illustrious influences can stop the movie from hitting one clanging note after another. We meet Sophie (played by Ruby Barnhill, who is adorable but asked to do far too much), an orphan who one day is taken from her bedroom by the Big Friendly Giant (a motion-captured Mark Rylance). He takes her to the land of the giants, where he makes stew and protects her from the nasty giants who want to eat her, and who torment him. Then there is some sort of conflict with the nasty giants, then the Queen of England gets involved, then the Queen and Sophie and the BFG have to team up to defeat the nasty giants, but the movie never really riles itself up into any sort of plot momentum. Instead, it lollygags, dwelling too long on its lush 3-D images and the intricate details in the BFG’s CGI face.
It’s difficult to get invested in what’s going on because Spielberg never seems all that invested himself. This is a filmmaker who often cares too much about what’s happening in his movies, who grips them so tight and intrudes on them so flagrantly that, at their worst, they can feel inorganic and stilted. But here, he is just idle. He seems to be watching his own movie go by.
The film is so sluggishly paced that even its pleasures—those bright countrysides, and a warm-hearted performance by Rylance—are overtaken by the boredom creeping in from all corners. The movie just plods along, with Sophie and the BFG becoming friends and then … well, then they stay friends. Their relationship is supposed to be the heart of the film, but there’s no real progression to it; they just simply are pals because the film insists they are. The movie gets much mileage out of the BFG’s amusing malapropisms, but goes to that well far too often, and even then they become lost amidst the scope and grandeur of it all.
Spielberg’s visual wit has always been underrated—to have the confidence to make the “OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR” joke in the middle of a terrifying T-Rex chase scene shows an absolute command of his medium. But he doesn’t do well here with the verbal humor or the physical kind. A movie like this needs a light, knowing touch, but Spielberg is far too whimsical for that, and the whimsy proves suffocating. No one has ever felt less comfortable with a good fart joke than Steven Spielberg.
And while the rendering of Rylance as the BFG is impressive, is it heresy to mention that some of the CGI actually doesn’t look that great? Scenes where Sophie is carted along in various small appliances in the BFG’s home should feel full of wonder, but instead you can sense every pixel. The scale doesn’t feel quite right: You’re constantly aware of the trick, and thus you never give yourself all the way over. It doesn’t help that the other giants feel like cartoon characters. Perhaps this is because The BFG comes too soon on the heels of Warcraft, but they look hackneyed, overly finished, and, more than anything, flat-out dopey.
None of this seems like material that Spielberg is comfortable with. Thus, he feels around in the dark, falling back on his old tricks, some twinkle here, some pixie dust there. But he’s not convincing himself, and he’s not convincing us. He can’t get the darkness of Dahl down, he can’t get the wonder of Spielberg down, and the movie ends up in a muddle.
The old master had a stretch about a decade ago when he was making movies fast and down-and-dirty, about one a year. He seemed as creatively invigorated as he’d been in decades. There’s a looseness to Catch Me If You Can, Minority Report, and (the masterpiece of the period) War of the Worlds that made it seem as if Spielberg was working more off instinct, like an old musician remembering and reconstructing the riffs that made him famous.
That stretch has ended. Even the good movies he has made in the last decade— Lincoln, to a lesser extent Bridge of Spies—have felt musty and dusted over, the eternal child skipping adulthood all together and going directly to the doddering former prize fighter who doesn’t have it in him to bring the heat anymore. A movie like the BFG needs energy, and invention, and an eagerness to strut and show off. Spielberg’s grandest entertainments wowed us because they were often for children of all ages made by someone who was a bit of a child himself. Spielberg, who will turn 70 this year, is no child anymore. This feels like a bedtime story told by a child’s grandfather as he slowly nods off, while the child plays obliviously on an iPad.
It’s no joy to say this, but Steven Spielberg’s whimsy no longer inspires wonder. It simply makes you sleepy.
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Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for The New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit griersonleitch.com.