Steven Spielberg is one of the rare film artists who could say his movies changed cinema forever, and no one would ask any follow-ups. Along with his friends Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Brian De Palma, Spielberg’s work in the 1970s and ‘80s helped to reestablish a new standard of excellence for Hollywood studio filmmaking. Always the most family-friendly of his film brat group of peers, Spielberg showed with films like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark that film didn’t have to be inaccessible to be artful. His attention to detail in crafting complex images was equally matched by his commitment to simple stories and relatable characters. This commitment has often sent Spielberg into history, lionizing figures like Abraham Lincoln or Oskar Schindler or the legal team behind the Amistad decision. But the search for a common experience — or the search for a universal market, to put it more mercenarily for the Spielberg haters out there — has often led Spielberg back to childhood, most recently with his new film, the Roald Dahl adaptation The BFG.
In Spielberg’s first couple of films, the experiences of children are incidental — in Jaws, the attack on Brody’s son makes the shark’s eradication a matter of personal importance. But with Close Encounters, Spielberg began what would become a career-long exploration of the emotional world of children; he included Roy and Ronnie’s children as spectators watching the turmoil in their parents' marriage as their father’s newfound preoccupation with UFOs alienates their mother. As in Jaws, the children raise the emotional stakes for the adults in the movie, but where the threat of a shark eating kids is a bit too fantastic to feel threatening to an audience, Close Encounters suggests how close to home Spielberg is able to bring his genre style.
It wasn’t until 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, however, that Spielberg made his first substantive feature about the experience of childhood. Elliott is a 10-year-old boy who, still finding his footing after his parents’ divorce, makes a bond with a lost alien, but the movie has since been boiled down to its most iconic and most joyful images: E.T.’s finger glowing, Elliott and E.T. flying in front of the moon. But Spielberg hasn't just made a Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium of never-ending twee treasures. What makes the supernatural wonder of E.T. actually play as wondrous is that it's the rare film that acknowledges the state of perpetual powerlessness that children occupy.
At any moment Elliott is subject to forces beyond his control. Elliott’s parents are divorced, his brother picks on him, his infinitely smarter and cooler younger sister is bound to become a lifelong movie star, and then he comes to find that his backyard is harboring aliens. Even once Elliott befriends E.T., he still has to hide his new alien companion because his mom might not approve. Then his empathetic bond with E.T. exposes him to illness, and even when he recovers he’s still powerless to stop E.T.’s own illness from progressing to the point of just-barely-averted death. Elliott is subject to government intervention at any moment, even though he knows E.T. and E.T.’s needs better than anyone. And in the end, even after they’ve jumped the moon together, and even though it means Elliott will go back to being alone, E.T. still has to leave. Spielberg understands the duality of looking at the world the way a child does — the world is equally open to magic and to catastrophe.
Following E.T., Spielberg made an abrupt shift from the family-friendly genre films that made him famous. In his sometimes loose adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Spielberg explores how the traumas of youth linger as an adult, as well as the immense amount of communal work it takes to unlearn the emotional lessons caused by forced separations and abuse. Empire of the Sun toed closer to the plot of J.G. Ballard’s 1984 novel about a British boy stranded in occupied China during the Second World War, but Spielberg centered the child, played by a young Christian Bale. In his hands, the story became a kind of dark E.T. offshoot, where a child is forced to grow up while being constantly upended by the structures of colonialism, nationalism, and capitalism at war around him. Spielberg’s children are always alone in some way, but in Empire of the Sun, Spielberg demonstrates the way that global conflict affects children.
Then came the much-maligned Hook, which twisted the J.M. Barrie novel about a family of children who escape to a world where kids never grow up into a story about what would happen if Peter went back to Neverland as an adult. It’s maybe Spielberg’s most sentimental film, bathed as it is in golden light, full of cheesy costumes, with a visual design that’s sometimes literally goopy, as the band of the Lost Boys chow down on inexplicable goo at a feast that only becomes visible when Robin Williams’s Peter learns to see like a child again. The movie was panned; all of my coworkers over the age of 35 despise it, swearing up and down that they will never watch it again. Still, the much-derided sentimentality masks a theme that in earnest could describe much of Spielberg’s career — like Peter, Spielberg has made an effort for better or worse to expel the baggage of adult life to see the world with the capacity for wonder that a child experiences. (Also, even the haters have to admit that Rufio was a god among boys, with hair to inspire Tumblr posts before Tumblr posts even existed.)
Jurassic Park hit the sweet spot between the horror of Jaws and the family-friendly action-adventure of the Indiana Jones series — it’s a monster movie that’s scary in a way that inspires wildly successful theme park rides more than it inspires nightmares. After which was A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
A.I. famously started as a Stanley Kubrick project before Kubrick’s untimely death halted development, at which point Spielberg stepped in. Where the middle section of the film — in which the young robot David is adrift in a futuristic world of robot prostitutes and Coney Island is buried underwater — feels like it would have benefited from Kubrick’s sense of irony, Spielberg spins a maternal myth out of the story of a robot child programmed to look like the son of a human woman who never asked for a replacement. Where, in his own projects like E.T. and Empire of the Sun, the child’s love for a parent is presented as natural in a way that precludes question, the cyborg nature of the wandering child robot David opens Spielberg’s worldview to unsettling questions about the origins of children’s feelings. Does David love Monica, or is he just programmed to love her? Does it matter — are all children programmed to love their mothers? When Monica is recreated after 2,000 years as a gift for David from the all-powerful life force that will eventually evolve from humans, is the care David experiences really coming from the same person he loved? The layers of real and non-real, what’s original and what’s copy, add a surrealism to Spielberg’s sentimentality that somehow makes it harder to shake. To believe in the sentiment, the audience has to will the sentimentality to be the result of real feeling, real consciousness, real humanity in the characters, and the uncertainty of that condition makes the conclusion of A.I. maybe the most unsettling moment in all of Spielberg’s filmography.
It’s been 15 years since Spielberg made a film with a child as its protagonist (unless you count 2011's The Adventures of Tintin; its protagonist was 15) — the longest break he’s taken from films about children in his entire career. Watching The BFG, it feels as if Spielberg’s priority first and foremost is in the exploration of space, as the demands of animating a 24-foot giant free Spielberg from the stuffy and static frames of Bridge of Spies and Lincoln, and position him once again in the eyes of a child. The BFG suffers from the tropes of modern fantasy filmmaking — uncanny valley motion capture, unappealing CGI production design, a tendency to flash bright blue and green and purple light as a signpost for “magic” that requires none of the confusion or wonder that makes practically produced images like a boy flying in front of a giant moon actually feel magical. But in its protagonist, Sophie — the first Spielberg girl hero after decades of Spielberg boys — there is the same satisfaction with the slightly synthetic. She’s an orphan, alone in the world like many a Spielberg character before her, but she’s plucky. She’ll stand up to giants and to the British monarchy if that’s what it takes to make her place in the world. Even with a bittersweet change to Roald Dahl’s ending, there’s never really the same sense of danger for Sophie as there was for Elliott or David, even when her problems take on a very literally giant scale.
Through 40 years of Hollywood filmmaking, Steven Spielberg has kept his heart in the right place — it’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to understanding the gentle bond that Roald Dahl imagined between the giant and a lonely child at the center of The BFG. But where Spielberg's early films trade on the bitter loneliness of being young and helpless, and the pain that comes alongside the pleasure of growing up, The BFG, like its title character, seems to prefer focusing on just the good dreams. He’s leaving the bad dreams for kids to encounter on their own, but it’s hard to fault Spielberg for not trying to make The BFG into another E.T. When you've spent your career imagining the vulnerability of children from their perspective, you've earned the right to focus on the magic for a while.