Notable Festivals: Berlinale (out of competition)
The warm reception of 1985’s THE COLOR PURPLE emboldened director Steven Spielberg to continue down the path of creating serious prestige films instead of his usual blockbuster fare. Meanwhile, an adaption of J.G. Ballard’s novel Empire Of The Sun had been kicking around Hollywood with one of Spielberg’s key influences, David Lean, attached to direct. Lean eventually left the project, which opened the slot up for Spielberg (who had been wanting to direct the property himself). Well-respected playwright Tom Stoppard had written the script, and when Spielberg came aboard, the project was infused with a great deal of prestige. Two years later, EMPIRE OF THE SUN was released, but despite Spielberg’s passion and optimistic expectations, the film was met by an indifferent audience response, disappointing box office returns, and confused critics who found the story muddled and unsure of its message. Appreciation for the film has only grown over time, and the general consensus today is that EMPIRE OF THE SUN is an underappreciated, overlooked masterwork within Spielberg’s oeuvre.
Our story begins in 1941, in Shanghai shortly before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Jamie Graham (Christian Bale) is a young boy, a British ex-pat born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a deep fascination with airplanes and flying. He lives with his parents in a big house outside Shanghai, oblivious to his parents’ growing unease with events on the world stage. His idyllic life is suddenly upended when the Japanese march on Shanghai, and he’s separated from his parents in the ensuing chaos. While he searches for them, he joins up with a pair of American con-men: Basie (John Malkovich) and Frank (Joe Pantoliano), only for the three to be swept up into a Japanese internment camp next to an airfield. As he languishes in the camp for several years, Jamie learns to survive and forgets all about his past life. He becomes a contributing member of the makeshift society constructed by the prisoners. As the events of the Pacific Theater of World War 2 play out beyond the confines of the camp, Jamie experiences an awakening to the wonders of the natural and industrial world, with the cost being his childhood and innocence.
Christian Bale makes his film debut as Jamie, proving his skill in playing rich brats extends all the way back to his boyhood. He captures that unmitigated sense of wonder and fascination that all boys concentrate onto a singular object- in Jamie’s case, airplanes. He’s always carrying around a toy plane, which becomes the catalyst for him getting separated from his parents. Even at such an early age, Bale is a striking actor, turning in one of the most convincing child performances I’ve ever seen. It’s also interesting to watch his performance in light of his later success as Batman/Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY; the early mansion scenes in Shanghai could have been lifted directly out of the flashbacks of Bruce Wayne’s childhood in BATMAN BEGINS (2005).
Veteran character actor John Malkovich brings a great presence to the film as the cool, collected con-man Basie. He’s rakish, and almost paternal in away, despite a general untrustworthiness and an “every man for himself” kind of mentality. Pantoliano plays Frank, Basie’s volatile counterpart. Its surprising to see Pantoliano so wiry and with a full head of hair, having previously been exposed to the characteristic stockiness and baldness that defined his roles in The Wachowski Brothers’ THE MATRIX (1999). A young Ben Stiller plays the bit role of Dainty, one of Basie’s wild-eyed, buck-teethed goons, with a grungy appearance and awkward body language that belies his future stardom.
Spielberg brings back cinematographer Allen Daviau, who retains the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, big-budget filmic look that defined most of Spielberg’s 80’s output. The color palette is warm and natural, with strong reds and oppressive greys. Spielberg uses bold camera movements like cranes and dollies to give an impressive sense of scale. While this same approach didn’t necessarily work for his previous THE COLOR PURPLE, it works quite well in EMPIRE OF THE SUN—an appropriate choice since the film was originally supposed to directed by David Lean, king of the sweeping epic genre.
Norman Reynolds serves as the production designer, creating a compelling aesthetic that uses artifacts of wealth and privilege as ironic commentary on the rich’s inability to comprehend the struggle of true daily survival. Expensive furniture, automobiles, statues, etc. gather dust in a large stadium, unattended to and forgotten about. They take on the form of clutter and junk, their value summarily dismissed in the chaos and anarchy of war. Even commerce is rendered useless, symbolized by a battered mural advertising the release of the film GONE WITH THE WIND—sticking out of the ruins of Shanghai like a haunting reminder of our collective innocence after having been ripped away by the ravages of World War 2.
Norman Rockwell has a significant influence on Spielberg’s visual aesthetic, arguably more so in EMPIRE OF THE SUN than his other films. The early sequences in Shanghai before the invasion are almost blatantly Rockwell-ian, with many frames ripped straight from the artist’s paintings. This serves to amplify Jamie’s removal from that way of life later on in the film, when he posts Rockwell paintings next to his bunk—yet another haunting reminder of innocence lost.
After a brief absence for THE COLOR PURPLE, John Williams returns to score Spielberg’s films, crafting a moving suite of cues for EMPIRE OF THE SUN. The music is not as memorable as their most iconic collaborations, but it is affecting and cinematic. Williams uses a Welsh hymnal as Jamie’s musical motif to great effect, giving the film one of its most poetically sublime moments when he juxtaposes it over a dawn prayer ritual for Japanese kamikaze pilots before their departure. The effect is an inspired blend of eastern and western ideas of honor and reverence, and makes for one of the best moments in the film.
Perhaps it’s best that Lean didn’t direct the film, since so many aspects of the story are so inherently within Spielberg’s wheelhouse. EMPIRE OF THE SUN is one of the best instances of Spielberg using the earnest, awe-filled perspective of a child as his way into the story. While E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL’s Elliott is probably the de facto symbolic avatar of Spielberg’s own childhood, EMPIRE OF THE SUN’s Jamie shows another side of the director as a young boy—the adventurous one fascinated by his father’s stories of air combat from World War 2. A preoccupation with World War 2 imagery and aviation is a staple of Spielberg’s style, but it all blends together so naturally in EMPIRE OF THE SUN that it becomes his most potent, concise statement on the idea. His signature awe/wonder shots don’t come from a manufactured obligation to story, but rather from a genuine amazement at the modern miracle of flight that translates organically into the story. EMPIRE OF THE SUN also contains the first instances of several images that Spielberg would explore later on his career to effects both potent (concentration camps and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) and insipid (nuclear bombs and INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008). Spielberg’s continuing on-screen exploration of his strained relationship to his father is somewhat inverted in EMPIRE OF THE SUN, which features an involved, loving father who is only absent because he is physically, unwillingly separated from his son.
As I wrote before, critics saw a muddled message in EMPIRE OF THE SUN, befuddled by what they assumed was a simple-minded or naïve narrative. Twelve years later, a writer named Ernest Rister came up with an interpretation of the film that reconciled many of the problems critics faulted the film with in an insightful essay. His piece claimed that EMPIRE OF THE SUN was Spielberg’s overlooked masterpiece, and argued that critics simply missed the point of the film. The general gist of his essay was that Spielberg, for the first time in his career, chose to use a subjective point of view rather than an objective one. We’re seeing reality through Jamie’s eyes as an unreliable narrator that looks back on his time in the internment camp with rose-tinted glasses, his innocence blinding him to the suffering going on around him. Rister obviously can explain it better than I can, so I’ll simply direct you here to his thoughtful article. If this was indeed what Spielberg was trying to capture in EMPIRE OF THE SUN, it’s an uncharacteristically subtle, mature move on his part.
Regardless of what Spielberg was trying to do, the film flew directly over the critics’ and the audience’s heads. EMPIRE OF THE SUN wasn’t a flop, but it was most definitely a disappointment for a filmmaker whose body of work boasted several of the highest-grossing films of all time. More importantly, it was a blow to Spielberg’s artistic sensibilities, as his attempts at branching out and becoming a serious filmmaker were met with scorn and indifference. This began a relatively dark period for him, in which he retreated into the safety of his usual blockbuster work, but his flirtations with greatness now only made him bored and uninspired. Much like EMPIRE OF THE SUN’s young protagonist, he was feeling grounded—but it was only a matter of time until he took flight again, and when he did, he would soar.
EMPIRE OF THE SUN is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Warner Brothers.
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tom Stoppard
Director of Photography: Allen Daviau
Production Designer: Norman Reynolds
Editor: Michael Kahn
Composer: John Williams