EMPIRE OF THE SUN

By Marc S. Sanders

Empire Of The Sun is a marvelous film.  Finally, I got to see it, and now I consider it to be Steven Spielberg’s transition film within his storied career. It’s also one of his best cinematic achievements.

Other than The Color Purple, the majority of his directorial work up to this point in 1987, consisted of adventure and escapism found in cliffhangers and children with the innocent curiosities to uncover what is underneath.  Empire Of The Sun contains all of these elements, but as the film progresses, it matures and grows up right before your eyes. 

Christian Bale makes his introductory role a performance to remember as young Jamey Graham.  He is a British child of unlimited privilege living in Shanghai with his parents, naïve and sheltered from the gradual Japanese occupation taking place in 1941 when China and Japan were in conflict with each other.  Jamey happily plays and gets into adventures with his model airplanes and his imagination of heroics.  One day, while at a costume party, he discovers a crashed war plane and then envisions his fantastical heroism.  Shortly thereafter, the fantasy becomes real when he comes upon a Japanese battalion, just yards away.  With his parents, they make a desperate escape from the city they and their ancestors have called home.  However, Jamey becomes separated from them amid the chaos within the surmounting crowds.  Now, this young child with no sense of self reliance has no choice but to become resourceful if he is to survive and reunite with his mom and dad.

Eventually, Jamey meets up with two Americans named Basie (an outstanding John Malkovich) and his sidekick Frank (Joe Pantoliano).  The three are sent to a Japanese Internment Camp forced to live and survive on bare necessities as the second World War rages on with the Americans joining the fight.

Spielberg treats his protagonist the same as he did with the Elliot character in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.  Jamey happily lives in his own imagination until it is disrupted by an intrusion.  For films like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and E.T., an alien of fantasy interrupts the protagonist’s lifestyle.  For Jamey, however, the reality of war harshly takes over.  It fascinated me how Empire Of The Sun, with a screenplay adaptation by Tom Stoppard of J.G. Ballard’s biographical account, seems to follow a familiar formula to Spielberg’s other pictures, and yet it reinvents itself with reality as opposed to fantasy.

Furthermore, Steven Spielberg does not abandon one of my favorite tropes of his as he makes the unseen the antagonist of the film.  When the veil is lifted, you can’t help but gasp.  Everyone knows he followed this approach in Jaws.  I also like to think he did this effectively with the German tank in Saving Private Ryan.  Here, he caught me completely off guard.  Young Jamey is dressed like Sinbad for Christmas jubilation at a costume party.  He’s happily tossing around one of his model planes and then when it flies out of sight over a grassy ridge, he runs over to the edge and finds something shocking beyond his treasured toy.  It’s a moment that happens early in the film and immediately tells me that this story will be bigger and more frighteningly real than meeting a cute, strange friend from another planet willing to eat my Halloween candy.

Spielberg’s production value is eye opening with thousands of extras within the scenes of mass exodus from Shanghai or within the internment camp.  Especially impressive is how he directs his extras to seem so overwhelming against young Christian Bale.  The child actor really followed direction, but more importantly it’s easy to see how method Bale might have been even at this young age.  He gets pushed and pulled and tugged on like I can only imagine an unforgiving circumstance of war would present itself.  Cinematics often praise Whoopi Goldberg’s debut in The Color Purple as one of the greatest introductions ever.  I have to put Bale’s performance up there as well.  The character arc that young Jamey experiences is well drawn out within Stoppard’s script, but Bale really performs the gradual change of a spoiled brat forced to become resourceful for not only himself but his comrades within the camp.  A director can tell a child actor where to walk or to sit or to stand.  A director can discuss the motivations of a particular scene.  With Christian Bale though, his performance throughout the film seems to remember where his character left off earlier in the story, where it has currently arrived and where it hopes to end up.  This young actor is so in tune with his character’s story. 

You may say John Malkovich serves as the staple mentor that every child protagonist has in so many other stories.  Basie is not that simple though.  A child will be quick to trust anyone he comes in contact with.  Spielberg and Stoppard know it’s not that easy though.  Malkovich is that dynamic actor who never seems forthright with his portrayals.  There’s something he always seems to hide from the audience.  Is he a snake ready to strike?  Is he a gentle pup ready for an embrace?  I never trusted how Basie would end up with Jamey by the film’s conclusion.  Malkovich delivers unpredictability so well.

Miranda Richardson is credited as a once wealthy friend to Jamey’s parents.  She’s not given much dialogue or scene work, but with the times she appears on screen Spielberg gradually breaks her down.  At first, she is well dressed in her finest linens insisting that her husband explain who they are to the Japanese forces.  Later and later in the film, the strength of her proud stature slowly crumbles.  It’s nice work and it’s crushing to watch.

Notable “tough guy” Joe Pantoliano goes through a similar transition.  A capture of him with Spielberg’s camera eventually focuses on a weeping and weak man.  Like much of the film, it is so unexpected.

There are epic overhead shots of panic and riots within the streets of Shanghai.  There are amazing moments where aerial attacks coming from nowhere with Jamey depicted running in a parallel line along the trajectory of a bi-plane.  It’s such a sweeping, personal story but the visual effects and camera work are so impressive as well.  The photography is striking in bright sunlight amid fireball missile strikes.  It is dazzling to watch.

As I noted earlier, Empire Of The Sun is Steven Spielberg’s transitional film.  Once again, he focuses on the innocent, young and unaware hero who is forced to become wise and most especially sensitive to a change in setting and circumstance.  With Empire Of The Sun, Steven Spielberg demonstrated that he could mature himself away from fantasy and embrace reality. 

I think Empire Of The Sun is an absolute masterpiece.

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