Steven Spielberg programmed the dreams of a generation. We saw Indiana Jones run away from the stone, we were petrified of the shark in Jaws, and we found a greater purpose in the last half hour of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. His films have a way of seeping from our lucid state into the very factory of our imagination. The BFG, adapted by ET screenwriter Melissa Mathison from Roald Dahl’s novel, is a dream that didn’t have to go through the filtering process. This is a full-bodied immersion into another place, another time, another reality.
A British girl, Sophie, tells us that giants are snatching sleeping children from an orphanage. Suffering from insomnia and an active imagination, she is swept up by the BFG and taken to the land of the giants. Her captor is not like the others of his kind. While the other nine giants abduct and eat children, BFG lives a lonely, quiet life away from the group. He does humble work, catching glimmers of light, dreams, and distributing them to the city at night.
The film has altruism and emotion in kind gestures, expressed subtly and generously: the gentle way the Big Friendly Giant’s enormous hands place Sophie’s tiny glasses down with care, how his palms change from a weapon to a shield as the pair become friends, and the manner in which he spreads his fingers over a faucet, creating a sprinkler for her shower. Newcomer Ruby Barnhill is captivating as Sophie, and her chemistry with Mark Rylance, who plays the gentle giant, is the heart of this film. Rylance’s performance has been rendered with motion capture, his face and gait represented with slight exaggerations. His nose sticks out. He is tall but very skinny. When he takes a step, you suspect he’ll fall head first, weighed down by his heavy and large ears.
There are unforgettable images, but so many that it seems impossible to remember them all. The BFG’s home is littered with meaningful knick-knacks — objects hoarded while alone. A telephone booth on his desk is used as a bowl for seeds; wheelbarrows look like clothespins strung on a wire; a ship that could carry a couple hundred people on deck is used as a tight, single-sized bed. It’s impossible to distinguish the real from the wizardry; the film feels tangible and mythical, detailed and charged with emotion. A raid on BFG’s home by the evil giants, using a long take to contrast the scale of the characters, feels like the best action scene Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy never had. A dinner in Buckingham palace is a comic set-piece and technical achievement Buster Keaton may have made if he had access to all of our digital tools.
The BFG is an encounter with awe in its most refined state. The story doesn’t have layers, the details don’t add up as metaphors and you can’t read the story as child’s dreamscene or as a political allegory. For these would reduce the film’s impact: the otherworldly as something earth-bound. Some may try to tell you that this is just a movie for children, that it’s easily forgotten, or that it’s a minor work from a director who grew up and made mature films. Too often our expectations and criticisms are built on a fraudulent view of what cinema is: it is not narrative, subversion or only art films. It is whatever it needs to be, and at this moment it is The BFG, flourishing – the glorious images, the light, the color, the simple optimism and the love between a girl and giant.