The BFG (2016)
The timing is exquisite, the content gigantic. Steven Spielberg’s latest film thunders into multiplexes just as the BFI’s season fades into the distance, a programming decision I’m sure want at all engineered by the boffins over at the South Bank. Growing up in the 1980’s it was impossible to miss the children books of Roald Dahl as it was to avoid reading J.K Rowling in the noughties, and although I couldn’t remember a damn thing about this story I’m sure I must have digested it at some point. Speaking frankly I had no interest in this picture from the perspective of story or adaptation, but as a man guided by traditions I have to see any new Spielberg at the cinema, as I have since Saving Private Ryan in 1995. If you’ll forgive me for delving into pretentious waters for a change (stop giggling) in the light of the BFI season I was more interested to see the film in the context of his earlier work, and attempt to divulge why SS decided to make this film at this point in the Autumn of career, you’d think that like Scorsese he would be wielding his considerable yet waning clout to get all those cherished projects on-screen, while he still has the energy and infrastructure to get through another long, gruelling shoot and post-production stewardship. His career has always oscillated between the pure, adrenalinsed first-class entertainments and his heritage, historical pictures, whilst this firmly thunders through the former category as a SFX laden, four quadrant kids picture it is also, I’m sorry to say, perhaps his worst film. And yes, I’m including The Terminal, Always, Hook and 1941 in that Ambling analysis.
The setting is reminiscent of Hook, as we are tethered into some romantic, quasi-Victorian version of London devolved of ethnicities or graffiti, like some fevered pre-war UKIP wet dream. In this reverie we meet Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill), a precocious young orphan girl who is carefully creeping around the corners of the vast institution. When she clandestinely spies a Big Fucking Giant ferreting around the London streets she is whisked off to some emerald spectred isle which seems to have been mystically unnoticed by the authorities, by the kindly titular behemoth played in motion capture mediation by Spielberg’s recent muse Mark Rylance. Although the BFG is fucking massive he is dwarfed by the dozen or so of his kinsmen who are absolutely fucking colossal, whose stature is matched only by their bullying and sneering demeanour – giant on giant action, will the madness never end? So the digitally deviated stage is set for two hours of green-screen mediated mediocrity, no doubt faithful to the book but severely lacking in charm, persuasive or Spielberg’s trademark sorcery. Obviously the film is not aiming at me, I’m not the target audience here, but juvenile story aside the entire enterprise presents itself as dull Disneyfied product, diluted of Dahl’s darker, slightly subversive edges which made him so popular in the first place.
Let’s begin with the performances. Sophie as a character is quite irritating in certain sequences, it’s not her fault as I’m sure she’s merely following instructions, but any of that innocent that Spielberg managed to muster in CE3K or E.T. is sadly absent. I am mystified at the praise Mark Rylance’s motion capture performance has engendered, for me he was merely an unconvincing CGI rendered colossus, whose every utterance of garbled English is meant to be charming and goofy, but is merely garbled and ugly. To be fair there’s a couple of clever touches with the behemoth darting around the crepuscular nocturnal shadows of London, and the film strives for a faint wisp of Spielbergian awe and wonder when he and Sophie travel to some mystical pool where dreams are birthed or something, and about 15 – 45 seconds of the evil giants hunting for Sophie in her friends tumbledown lair has some fraction of clever orchestration from the man who gave us the Indiana Jones and the Jurassic Park pictures. Alas, that is slim pickings among the detritus of this downer. I came at this in the shadow of the recent Spielberg season, intrigued to see how this stacks up against his other work and the manipulation of the SFX, the size disparities, the motion-capture rotoscoping, the CGI work-streams. Maybe, just perhaps, through his elemental skills as a story-teller he could lever some interest and intrigue into this tale I reasoned, as this is a filmmaker who has seduced and beguiled audiences for decades. Well, I was wrong, the answer to all these vain hopes was dashed on the rocks of mediocrity. The integration of Sophie into the oversized proportions of her environment is glaringly mediated, she and all the other characters just don’t integrate into the story visually or narratively, and the episodes and story beats throughout the film hang limp and lifeless on the screen, as if Spielberg has had his finesse and skill crushed through the digital engineering and processing.
If my general disinterest and antipathy was wallowing for the first hour of the picture, when the story turns to Sophie and the BFG for some reason meeting the Queen (Penelope Winton) and engendering a British Forces assault on the Land Of The Giants plunged me deep into the waters of outright hostility. I really, really began to dislike the film at this point, the deference to authority, the tacky tourism postcard semiotics, the scatological humour which is really not to my comedic taste. Again, yes this film isn’t for me so perhaps I’m being unfair in rejecting something written for young kids – that is a fair criticism, but I am mystified to why Steven was drawn to this project given its desperate qualities. I can only assume that he loved reading the book to his kids so this is the result of one of those vanity projects, and I’m sure he wanted to keep up with modern technology just as he did with the Tintin project, but to paraphrase Dr. Malcolm from Jurassic Park ‘your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should‘. That this is Melinda Mattheson’s postscript, she wrote E.T. back in 1981 and recently passed away seems so sad, so the closing credit tribute reminds you that once this team could produce a genuine work of global wonder. It gives me no pleasure to be relentlessly negative with almost every review over the past quarter, but its a sobering fact that the relentless march of routine, uninspired material has been the mainstay of this years blockbuster season, normally by this stage of the year I would have picked up two or three pictures for my selection for the end of the year, and frankly I haven’t seen anything since March that I would consider even remotely in that category. So, ever the optimist I’m going to see Suicide Squad shortly to see if we can salvage any wreckage from this terrible summer of movies, and judging by initial reports that’s gonna be one tough mission…..