Empire of the Sun (1987)

by The Movie Diorama

Empire of the Sun glaringly shines insight into the impoverished wealthy amidst war-torn China. Spielberg is one of a handful of directors that everyone acknowledges. Whether your interest lies with films or elsewhere, he is known to all for his eclectic filmography that tackles nearly every single genre available. The beauty of his directorial talents, is that he can manipulate any subject matter and transform its contents into an accessible piece of entertainment. From hard-hitting crime capers (‘The Sugarland Express’) to the depiction of African-Americans succumbing to racial/sexist abuse (‘The Color Purple’). He has the ornate ability to disassemble history and shape the remnants into his Hollywood mould. But at what cost?

Does Spielberg’s contagious requirement for accessibility downplay the severity of its subject matter? Well, Empire of the Sun may just be the most perfect example to answer the aforementioned question. It illustrates my eternal adoration for the man as an auteur, as well as his damned tendencies that bring down his historical endeavours. A young British boy living with his wealthy family in war-torn Shanghai, becomes separated from his parents where he is soon retained as a prisoner of war in an internment camp.

An epic adaptation of Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel, that heavily relied on a fictitious narrative to convey his own vivid memories of World War Two. A story of three vital themes that power both the characters and the central narrative. Opulence, faith, and humanity. Spielberg commences the first act in a worrying light of unnecessary affluence, following a white family with an abundance of possessional wealth traversing the segregated streets of Shanghai embattled by poverty. The bitter aftertaste of supremacy as “peasants” desperately fight for survival. Whilst it may harken to real events, they make for unlikeable characters due to their careless perception in the environment they are enshrouded in. The father and mother are non-characters, merely acting as fuel for Jim’s coming-of-age journey, and Spielberg paid far less attention to the surrounding chaos which consequently diminished the severity of the war’s impact. It can be argued that the entire story, including the first act, is told through Jim’s perspective. But the naive ignorance to represent the lives that were truly affected was extremely profound.

Then Jim, in the crowded streets of Shanghai, becomes separated from his parents. Mugged, abandoned and lost. His opulent lifestyle relinquished from his selflessness. Gradually, Spielberg constructs an epic that conveys the loss of innocence. This once fragile young boy, unbeknown to the horrors of the world, now utilising his intuition to survive the brutality of war independently. Spielberg definitely downplayed the brutalism of conflict, and instead opted for an endearing focus on Jim’s abrupt development from a timid boy to unsung hero. Unsurprisingly, it worked. Spielberg’s screenplay presents Jim with a plethora of challenges that tests the will of humanity in its entirety. From attempting to escape the internment camp to resuscitating the recently deceased. Jim encompasses every notion of humanity during this heightened time, naturally making him relatable. His actions slowly further his development into adulthood in such a short space of time, with much gratification aimed at Spielberg’s masterful attention to characterisation.

Initially proclaimed as an atheist, Jim experiences metaphysical moments believed to be acts of faith, likening him to a deity of some kind. “Giving life” for a brief moment to the recently passed, which was an ounce of blood pumped to the brain. Witnessing a soul be released into heaven, however, counteracted by the infamous Nagasaki atomic bomb. These “acts” grant Jim the power of self-belief, fully realising his potential as the “hero” of optimism.

There’s nothing more optimistic and endearing though than watching a juvenile Christian Bale steal the entire film. Malkovich and Havers ground the enthusiasm of Bale’s performance, yet his commanding presence at such a young age cements him as a talent to behold. Tender moments were handled with delicacy, whilst the louder moments fused with his boisterous personality. Quite simply, one of the best young performances I’ve seen. Williams’ signature score, ever accompanying Spielberg’s work, elevated the grandeur of the spectacular production design yet somewhat exhumed family-friendly vibes commonly found in his previous work. Admittedly that’s a personal conflict of my own, but again did diminish the more powerful scenes. Jim’s fascination with aircraft wasn’t fully realised and felt like an afterthought to coincide with the Japanese “friend” in the final act, although not a substantial detriment to the overall story.

In the blazing heat of war camps, Empire of the Sun shines as an epic that showcases the very reason for my Spielberg idolisation and his cursed ability to lessen the severity of history. Regardless, you’ll laugh, gasp and cry during this coming-of-age tale, and that’s the true beauty of this auteur’s timeless work.