In the opening shot of Empire of the Sun, the screen is filled with murky river water; flowers drift by in the current, and then a wooden box – but the box is cracked open, a coffin revealing a pale corpse inside. Immediately, the audience is served notice: This will not be your average Steven Spielberg movie.
Actually, the average Spielberg movie is generally an exhilarating film experience, although the director-producer-conglomerate has lately been Hollywood’s favorite whipping boy. He’s made an incredible amount of money in a few years, and he’s brought no small measure of joy into the lives of moviegoers, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to E.T. to The Color Purple. For this, and for the sin of making movies about children and extraterrestrials, he’s become the subject of scorn.
For some reason the same people who rightly complain about how Hollywood ignores children’s movies are the same folks who whine that Spielberg must make films for adults. While the rest were trying to figure that one out, Spielberg was out making Empire of the Sun, which turns the neat trick of being an adult movie about childhood.
It’s based on a novel by J.G. Ballard, who drew on his own experiences as a boy growing up in occupied China in World War II. Spielberg’s film charts the wartime life of young Jim (Christian Bale), who begins the story as the spoiled son of the British uppercrust in Shanghai. After he’s separated from his parents in the crush of evacuation, Jim is on his own in Shanghai for a few weeks, then taken into custody and shipped to a Japanese prison camp.
Most of the remainder of the film is set in the camp, where Jim evolves from a posh kid into a savvy survivor, mainly under the influence of three people: a sickly, beautiful woman (Miranda Richardson), a compassionate doctor (Nigel Havers), and especially a cocky, manipulative American seaman (John Malkovich), who holds court constantly and apprentices Jim in the ways of a survivor.
Empire of the Sun is a rich production, from the magnificent period detail in the Shanghai sequences (filmed on location) to the nuances of Allen Daviau’s cinematography in the potentially monotonous camp scenes (filmed in a Spanish desert).
But there is much more than top-flight production value. Spielberg’s eye for the small touches that reveal so much about character is as keen as ever, such as the mysterious layer of spilled face powder that tells the story of Jim’s parents’ capture at their empty home. It is supremely evocative directorial work.
It’s fascinating that Spielberg, whose criticized weakness is toward sentiment, would choose an adapter whose work is, to put it mildly, not known for its heart. Playwright Tom Stoppard’s screenplay is marked by neat understatement, and an ability to pack various meanings within a single line: When a truck leaves for the camp, Jim finagles his way on board by offering help to the confused driver: “I know the way to Suchow! My parents were members of the country club!”
Stoppard’s coolness matches Spielberg’s warmth, and suits this often grim story. Yet Spielberg finds the life-affirming thread in the material, made rich by the complexity of the design and the naturalism of the actors (Spielberg, so superb with children, has gotten a great performance out of young Christian Bale). Spielberg masterfully guides this odyssey from the dark to, quite literally, the light.
First published in the Herald, December 10, 1987
I recall having the chance to see this film twice before writing about it, a rarity in movie reviewing. From this piece you can get a sense of where Spielberg’s reputation was in these pre-Schindler years, based on my defensiveness about it. I still think it’s one of his finest films, and the idea that Spielberg’s sensibility thrives in juxtaposition to drier creative talents like Ballard and Stoppard seems legit. Whatever happened to young Christian Bale?